By Denise Tessier
Describing itself as passionately in support of a free press, Albuquerque Press Women on Monday hosted a forum that ended up being a passionate discussion about the fine line between high school press freedom and a Supreme Court decision that gives school officials permission to censor school papers as they see fit.
The impetus for the forum was perceived fallout from the publication of an opinion piece in the October edition (on page 4) of La Cueva High School’s award-winning student newspaper, The Edition, entitled “Marijuana Not As Dangerous As You Might Think.”
To be more precise, the impetus was perceived fallout of the publication of the Albuquerque Journal’s Oct. 16 report about the school column, which was given the Journal’s top spot in the paper: Page One, above the fold and just below the Journal’s masthead. The article, “La Cueva Pot Column Reopens Wounds,” provided a fair account of the marijuana column’s content and La Cueva parental reaction, including quotes from a parent who told the Journal the school paper “should be policed by the school.”
The Journal also ran nearly a full page of letters – both in support of and opposing the marijuana piece – on its Op-Ed page Oct. 28.
But in the two months since the Journal gave that article such prominent play, the state’s leading daily did no follow-up on whether the school principal did indeed institute prior review (which would be a change in La Cueva policy), or whether there were repercussions from the incident for The Edition’s journalism adviser.
Such concerns were expressed at Monday’s forum and were left unanswered at its close, as neither Principal Todd Resch (who was invited) nor adviser Pat Graff were in attendance.
However, Resch answered both questions when contacted Tuesday morning, saying he “did institute prior review” and that the adviser is not in trouble. “Miss Graff does an outstanding job,” he said.
Resch explained his decision on prior review by saying he “found out the hard way that if I’m to be held accountable (for what’s printed) I’d like to read it beforehand.”
He stopped short of saying he would have censored the opinion column if he had read it prior to publication, but said, “I would have questioned it for sure, maybe wanted more research to be done.” Resch said there was good information “at the start of the article” (referring to its discussion of medical marijuana), but that some of the later information did not hold up as well.
As the Journal article accurately related, the opinion column:
. . . begins with information about medical marijuana use, then transitions into an argument that many marijuana users are successful and happy. “You can still cook, run errands, go to the gym and perform complex tasks after using marijuana,” (Carri) Rosley wrote. She went on to write, “… seeing life in a peaceful and happy way doesn’t seem very bad to me. A lot of great ideas come from people who smoke weed responsibly.”
Some parents, including one who helped start a heroin awareness group after a former student died of an overdose last year, questioned the appropriateness of this opinion in a school paper.
To understand the concern this incident created for some members of Albuquerque Press Women and its parent organization, New Mexico Press Women (of which, I should note, I have been a member 30 years), one needs to understand the constraints school papers and their advisers have been under in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Hazlewood decision of 1988.
Some of this history was provided during Monday’s forum by Albuquerque School Board President Marty Esquivel, himself a former high school journalist and an expert in First Amendment law. (In what was a shocker to some of those in attendance Monday, Esquivel noted that in 1988 mainstream editors supported the Supreme Court decision rather than the rights of students who might be working for them someday. Citing an Editor and Publisher article – sorry no link, E&P’s search feature is down as I write this – Esquivel said the mainstream press reaction was that “freedom of the press is for those who own the press.”)
But back to the history.
In 1969, at the height of protests against the Vietnam War, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in what is known as the Tinker decision that high school students do not “shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate,” affirming that three Iowa high school students had the right to wear black armbands as a symbol of opposition to the war.
Nearly 20 years later, in 1988, the high court modified that affirmation drastically in terms of the high school student press. In the Hazlewood decision, the court gave school officials the right to censor what student newspapers print, which, according to the Student Press Law Center, resulted in increased reports of student publication censorship and alleged job loss threats to advisers who questioned the rule.
In contrast, before this decision, “courts nationwide had ruled that unless public school officials could demonstrate evidence that substantial disruption of school activities was imminent, they could not censor school-sponsored student publications simply because they were controversial or expressed unpopular views,” according to an American Society of Newspaper Editors article.
The article goes on to say that:
As a result, the quality of high school journalism soared as students began to discuss real issues like drug abuse and school funding instead of limiting their coverage to fashion critiques of prom couples and football statistics.
While it does cover fashion and football, La Cueva’s newspaper is not one of those plagued by the trivial and innocuous, but has historically covered “real issues.” At Monday’s forum, some in attendance remembered the paper’s investigation into lead content in the school’s water supply and the follow-up. What hasn’t been mentioned, either by the Journal or by those at the forum, is that the the October issue in which the marijuana piece appeared also carried a full-page cover story on the school’s anti-drug program targeting heroin use.
Calling Graff one of those “who has done the most for high school journalism in the state,” Esquivel said he doesn’t think it unreasonable for a principal to approve a story. What is unreasonable, he said, is censorship of a story written by students in a Chicago suburb, which exposed questionable travel expenses incurred by school administrators.
Retired APS journalism adviser Sue Leonard, who shared the podium with Esquivel as a featured speaker, said her pre-Hazelwood students “were never censured or subject to prior review; but I don’t know, maybe we were just lucky.” In inviting Leonard and Esquivel, Albuquerque Press Women had asked the two to discuss “walking the tightrope between working with student journalists who want to stretch their wings and concerned parents who worry about them flying into dangerous territory.”
In her remarks, Leonard made three main points:
- “Should we err on the side of power over freedom? I say no.” On the other hand, she said, students need to learn how to write well, bring all pertinent points to the story and learn to recognize libelous content. “Student news is not a PR tool of the administration to be used only to show the good side of a school, or its bad side.”
- Students are teenagers. “The more you say no, the more they’re going to push.” And with censorship, “either you’re going to kill the newspaper, or you’re going to create a bigger outcry. If there’s an outcry, you might end up, as (the column in question did), on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal.” (The outcry here, however, which came from parents, was over the running of the story, not its censorship.)
- Most importantly, Leonard said, “You have to embrace controversy as a teachable moment.”
At the end of the forum, Leonard asked Esquivel if he, on behalf of the school board, might offer high school principals “a teachable moment” on school paper policy sometime, which Esquivel called an “excellent idea.” “I’d definitely like to pursue it,” he said.
Meanwhile, La Cueva Principal Resch has already engaged in a “teachable moment,” saying he spoke with the entire staff of the school paper, The Edition. He said he met to inform them that there will be prior review, but also to impress upon the young journalists that “We need to think before we start writing articles in conflict with school policy.”
Resch praised the school journalism staff as well as Graff and said two “productive, informative” newspapers have been created since the October issue. The latest is just about to be released, he said, and he thinks it includes a marijuana “counterpoint” article written by a La Cueva parent.
“We’re learning from this and we’re moving forward,” Resch said.