This is #11 in a bi-montly series by NCTE member Alana Van Der Sluys.
I had originally wanted to write a post this week on how scholastic censorship occurs not just at the high school level but also at the collegiate level. It would have been a nice procession from my latest blog on how such silencing affects civic responsibility and democracy.
But to paraphrase John Steinbeck, the best-laid plans often go awry. . . when scholastic journalism makes its way to the Senate floor.
On August 1, New Jersey Senator Diane Allen (R) introduced a New Voices bill with Senator Nia Gill (D) and Senator Jennifer Beck (R) as co-sponsors. As a result, there are now identical bills in both the State Senate (S-2506) and Assembly (A-4028).
In summary, the bill would hold school administrators to the 1969 Supreme Court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503. As a result of that ruling, students gained First Amendment rights for the first time; student press was protected unless deemed disruptive of the education process.
In light of incidences like Tom McHale’s resignation over a prior review controversy, John Wodnick’s resignation over a three-month censorship controversy, and Barbara Thill’s resignation over “changes administrators made to the journalism program,” it seems worthwhile to note that this new bill will protect journalism teachers and advisers from administrative retribution as well.
In a private email, Garden State Scholastic Press Association (GSSPA) founder and New Voices New Jersey contact John Tagliareni did point out a very crucial component to this bill’s success, particularly in its third introduction to the Senate: the public’s and Senate’s knowledge of the difference between prior restraint and prior review.
Administrators will still be able to exercise prior review, or the ability to view material before it is published. If a school exercises its right to prior review, it is typically a rule stated in the school’s handbook or is verbally agreed upon by the administration and journalism adviser; some schools do not exercise prior review by choice, but instead trust the journalism advisers and students to only publish what is protected under the First Amendment.
What the bill protects students and teachers against, however, is prior restraint of material that is protected under the First Amendment. Prior restraint, as the term suggests, prevents publication of material. This should only be done if the material is not protected under the First Amendment (i.e., material that is libelous, presents a clear and present danger to students and staff, and is disruptive to education).
Although not favored by scholastic newspaper advisers and staff, the option of administrators to use prior review is essential; administrators need to at least have the right to pull material that is not protected under the First Amendment. However, the bill will protect against the administration’s pulling articles because, for example, they are critical of administration, publicize a district controversy, or present an unpopular opinion.
Alana Van Der Sluys is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting.