INDIANAPOLIS — Joey Bowling is learning how to develop stories, run an Opinions page, handle articles with a sensitive nature and protect anonymous sources. As a senior at Floyd Central High School and Opinions editor for The Bagpiper, Bowling says he joined the student publication because he “really admired the fact that people were able to put themselves out there, were able to have the courage to pursue stories that not everyone wants to hear and I wanted to emulate that."
Those student journalists who "put themselves out there" in The Bagpiper are protected from the administration having a say in what it prints thanks to a school board policy, but not all student publications are so lucky. A bill authored by state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, may lessen administrative censorship. House Bill 1016 would put into law what a school corporation can censor in its student publications or broadcasts for grades 7 through 12.
Jim Lang, journalism advisor at Floyd Central High School, strongly supports the bill, namely because he’s had a lengthy teaching career in classrooms free of administrative overstep.
“I’ve always been fortunate to be in a situation where there’s been no corporate censorship,” Lang said. “I’ve seen the advantage it gives kids. They learn more because to produce quality productions they have to have full ownership and what administrative prior-restraint and censorship do, they remove the essential ownership and the kids don’t own it as much. I’ve seen that and I know to a lot of people it sounds like a good idea to give the principal more control over the student publications, I know logically it sounds like a good idea but what happens is it’s a government entity censoring a kid. That’s what it is. Public schools are government schools.”
As a trained journalist, Lang says he has the credentials to guide his students on how to develop their articles and find sources, oversee the publication and ensure high quality. Principals, “though it offends some people," are simply not trained journalists, he says, and therefore are not qualified to weigh in on what happens in a journalism classroom.
“If you have a turnover during a basketball game, you don’t call a timeout and the principal doesn’t come insert themselves into the middle of the game. If you flub up on a math test the principal doesn’t come take the test for you. When [the students] make mistakes, they have to be accountable for those mistakes, too,” he said.
On the other side of the argument, and another county away, Greater Clark County Schools Corp. superintendent Andrew Melin says that more oversight ensures the students are safe and working in an environment similar to the structure of what he considers a real newsroom.
“It’s vital we are teaching students how to be journalists and there is a lot of responsibility to make sure not only we are developing good journalistic skills but also they understand the power of their skills. They can put their work right out in front of people and they are opening themselves up for potential criticism. It’s very important that adults in a high school environment, that we are encouraging them to develop those skills but we are sensitive to the work ... [and] not putting them in harm’s way,” Melin said.
To the superintendent, a principal overseeing the student publication would act in the same way a publisher does, saying “all of us have people to answer to.”
“I think the principal has an obligation to make sure he is protecting the interest of the student, the newspaper, the school community and the community as a whole,” Melin said.
Clere says his bill strikes a balance; it would keep the option for oversight at the top, but if an administrator wanted to censor a student publication or broadcast, the school corporation would have to prove the body of work, for example, was libelous or slanderous, violated the law or incited students to act against school policy or the law.
“Under this bill, schools would still maintain a high level of control ... It doesn’t stop administrators from prior review, but does stop prior restraint,” Clere said.
Clere says student journalists are just as important as professional journalists and with outright censorship comes implicit and self censorship as well.
“For example, if you put your time and resources into a story about drugs and your principal decides that they don’t want it [to run], you probably aren’t going to try run another story on drugs again. That principal may say that they didn’t turn down another story on drugs, but the censorship is still there because the kids and advisers know not to try. It leads to a loss of program quality for students,” Clere said.
The bill is primarily an education bill, but has drummed up a lot of opposition from the associations representing school boards, principals and superintendents, something not surprising to Clere but “disappointing,” he says. He expects the legislation will be voted on in the House on Monday and is hopeful it will pass, noting that, despite the opposition, he has had support from many teachers, principals and superintendents. If the bill does pass the House, it then must receive a hearing in the Senate Education Committee.
"I have quite a few members who have committed to voting for it. I think it is going to be a lot tighter than last year. Last year it wasn't tight at all – last year it [passed] 88-4 [in the House]," Clere said, adding he thinks those against are fighting so hard because there was so much support last year. "This year it's going to be tight, I don't think we are going to be anywhere near 88. I think we can get it out of the House and over to the Senate and see what happens over there. There's been early and fierce opposition, even more so than last year."
After the vote in the House last year, the bill made went to the Senate, where it died when the session ended.