Tag Archives: editorial

Publications policy requires review

In July, 2009, Fauquier County adopted a student publications policy that severely compromised the First Amendment rights of student journalists by stating that the principal was the “editor” of all student publications and responsible for “approving” all publications with his “judgement and discretion.” Deeply troubled by this policy, the county publication advisers and principals worked with then superintendent Dr. Jonathan Lewis to develop a publications policy that balanced the needs of students to express their viewpoints and write about their school community with administrative concerns about acceptable speech in the public school setting. The School Board adopted this revised policy in December, 2009, and praised the process by which the compromise was reached.

In 2012, Assistant Superintendent Frank Finn and School Board Attorney Brad King “updated” the publications policy by reinstating language that again makes the principal the “editor” of all student publications and responsible for “approving all publications in accordance with School Board policy and his judgment and discretion.” The 2012 revisions were made without input from any county publications adviser. Moreover, the revised policy was not made known to any adviser until the recent controversy about the censorship of The Falconer’s article on dabbing. Setting aside concerns about the way these changes were made, the 2012 publications policy severely undercuts the journalism programs in Fauquier County.

Editors are in charge of running a publication. They help develop and approve a story list and have the authority to decide what viewpoints or stories run or do not run. The language in the 2012 policy takes away the editor role from student journalists and gives it to the principal. Under the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision, principals can censor student speech without violating the First Amendment as long as he or she has a legitimate educational purpose. These legitimate purposes were identified in the December, 2009, policy. However, under the 2012 policy, the principal is allowed to use his “judgment and discretion” when deciding what goes in student publications. This implies that a principal could censor any viewpoint or article topic he or she does not agree with, including pieces that criticized his actions and decisions.

This is a conflict of interest. Student journalists have a right to and are largely responsible for covering and expressing viewpoints about decisions made by the administration. Public school principals are government officials. As government officials under the First Amendment, they are bound to not infringe upon the First Amendment rights of journalists reporting on their policies. Just because students are in a public school does not mean that their First Amendment rights do not exist, and making a principal the editor-in-chief of student publications ultimately contradicts his role as a government official.
Although Hazelwood allows prior review in certain circumstances, it does not require it. However, as Assistant Superintendent Finn made clear, the 2012 policy does – how can a principal “approve” a publication without reading it? Prior review leads to censorship. After being reviewed, the dabbing article was censored on the grounds that it was unsuitable for freshmen. Prior review creates biased articles that do not report news accurately. During discussions of the censorship of the dabbing article, it was suggested that the administration could “edit” the article to better reflect the administration’s viewpoint by removing the frank quotes that described the experiences of student users. This is not acceptable journalism in the school world any more than it is in the “real world.”

Prior review also leads to self-censorship. Now, student journalists at FHS are afraid to cover controversial topics concerning the student body, and are even avoiding using certain words, out of fear that their work will be censored by the administration. Can The Falconer write about underage drinking? Can The Falconer write about sexual activity among teens?

The student voice is crucial. It offers a perspective on student life unlike any other, and it gives a voice to the voiceless. School publications should be a forum for students to write about matters concerning their peers and matters that are important to their peers, in a respectful manner in the school community. Publications are forums to discuss student life, and students have an essential voice that deserves to be heard. Most importantly, school publications are a way to learn about and practice real journalism. This is valuable beyond words. Student publications are not, and should not be forced to be, a mouthpiece for the administration. Making material in publications up to the principal’s “judgment and discretion” violates students’ First Amendment rights. The new publication policy is unconstitutional and severely damages the human rights of student journalists.

The School Board should reinstate the carefully crafted language of the December, 2009, policy. Under this policy the administration already had sufficient authority to censor what they feel is inappropriate, as shown by the censorship of the article about dabbing. The School Board should not have policies that encourage school administrators to dictate what student journalists can or should write about.

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The administration censors Falconer article on manufacture and use of dabs

On March 10, Principal Clarence Burton told The Falconer that he would not permit the publication of an in-depth article written about dabbing, the smoking of a highly concentrated form of marijuana that’s popular in the student drug subculture. After being notified of the potentially controversial article, Burton asked to review the article prior to publication, and then denied publication on the grounds that the information might endanger the health or safety of students. This is a new phase in the history of The Falconer, which has not been censored in over 36 years, if ever.

The article is a well written, extensively researched, unbiased, and informative piece that  relies on several student sources to document first-hand experiences with the drug. The article discusses what dabbing is and identifies numerous risks associated with the use and manufacture of the drug. Although he acknowledges that  the article is quality student journalism, he says it is not appropriate for ninth grade readers, even though one of the sources began using the drug as a freshman. According to Burton, young students should not be permitted to read the information without adult guidance to tell them what it means. In his letter stating the reasons for the censorship, Burton said, “Unlike a drug safety unit taught in a health class by a trained professional, this article does not come with that trained instructor. If this article was to be published, children would be exposed to a new and dangerous drug without adult guidance.” The only problem with this position is that students are not taught drug safety units in high school. The administration has known about dabbing for months, but has not provided information to the school community.

By censoring the article, the administration’s position seems to be that educating young people about a topic that is controversial and dangerous means that they will go out and do it. Topics like teen pregnancy, drunk driving, suicide, and drugs should not be discussed, at least not by students in a student newspaper. The voices of high school students on these topics must be silent, and the only messages that are sanctioned are those of the administration. That way, controversy will not happen, and it will not exist. In reality, most of the student body, including freshmen, knows that dabbing exists. For those who don’t, is it better for them to learn about dabbing through a friend or a peer, or through a researched, comprehensive article?

Prior review takes the student out of a student publication and makes it a publication by the administration. A student journalist’s job is to report on the activities of students in their school, and that is what the article does. The School Board’s publications policy requires student material to be fair and balanced, well-written, grammatically correct, and suitable for audience for which it is intended. Some controversial topics may be uncomfortable for adults, who do not like to admit that some high school students may be involved in drug use or other controversial behavior. However, we contend that not saying anything is more harmful than saying the truth. Just because a topic may be uncomfortable for the administration does not mean that it is unsuitable for a high school audience. Or that students are incapable of understanding it.

Although the publications policy requires students to notify the principal of potentially controversial stories, this does not mean that student First Amendment rights do not exist; nor does it mean there should be prior review. Most importantly, it does not mean that censorship is okay. Essentially, the new editors of The Falconer are the administration, and the voice of the student body is severely compromised.

Because of censorship, being a part of the student newspaper is no longer a way to learn about real journalism and write real stories about real issues. If The Falconer does put in the hours to write stories that matter to the lives of students, the administration can kill them with the stroke of a censor’s pen. The administration-approved stories may have our names, but not student voices. The principal could support us, he could trust us, and he could be an advocate for the student voice.

The Falconer encourages opinions from the student body and the community about this issue.

EDITORIAL: New school year has fair share of hits, some misses

Hits
BYOD: Allowing for cell phones during school hours and encouraging educational use of devices is key to effective 21st century learning.
Taco Bell construction begins: After months of delays, the chain broke ground on their new structure in late August.
Natural light in classrooms: The wide windows and skylights provide for a more earth-friendly and open learning environment.
Football’s new jerseys: The varsity squad’s new game-day apparel makes the team look as fresh as they play.
A+ Days: An extra 40 minutes in the middle of the week is a lifesaver for busy students.
Connecting the 500 and 700 hallway: Student athletes and science students appreciate the new gateway between the wings.

Misses
No middle railing: The new building’s traffic flow would be more easily controlled, and students would not be as vulnerable to injury.
Covered walkway eliminated from construction plans: A covered walkway from the annex to the main building would be useful on rainy and snowy days.
Straight parking spaces: Teenagers are inexperienced drivers, and eliminating the slanted spaces results in crooked parking.
No paper towels in the bathroom: While the hand dryers are eco-friendly, they also require more time. With only six minutes to get to class, we’d prefer paper towels. They also come in handy for spills.