Prior review still casts a shadow on high school media
By Marin Wolf
Almost 30 years after the Hazelwood decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, student newspapers and yearbooks in many high schools still operate under prior review.
North Carolina has a long history with the practice, and many high schools have a tradition of being censored by advisors and administrators.
The 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision allows administrators to review papers for inconsistencies with “the shared values of a civilized social order.”
Hazelwood ruled that teachers and administrators have the right to read over student-produced editions, if that has been the previous tradition at the school, before the editions go to press. Because of the vague nature of the case, it is at the discretion of the administrators to determine what is or is not appropriate for the paper.
Rising Enloe High School senior Allayne Thomas has had her share of experiences with prior review on her school paper, Eagle’s Eye. “At my school they mostly give the journalism teacher free reign on deciding what goes in and what can be published,” said Thomas. “We send a copy to the principal, and he reads it, but he never really has anything to say.”
The Wake County Public School System handbook outlines that “the faculty sponsor of such publications or school principal may prohibit the distribution of any materials that fail to meet journalistic standards or are inappropriate for the school audience.”
Recent pressure from WCPSS following the publishing of controversial articles has caused Enloe’s relaxed policies to change.
“This year they have been more involved,” explained Thomas. After students submitted an article about teen suicide, they were met with criticism from the Enloe administration. “There was a lot of intervention beforehand from the principal,” added Thomas. “I think it could have been a lot better if (the student reporters) had been allowed to write it to its full potential, and in that way he really limited the article being the best it could be.”
Prior review has had adverse effects on the newspaper staff, but student journalists are not the only ones affected.
Steve Hanf is a teacher and newspaper advisor at First Flight High School in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. Hanf said that, while he has had little trouble with the principal over the paper, he is expected to keep information appropriate.
“Really the biggest thing when it comes to prior review is not so much what gets on the page that an administrator is going to see,” said Hanf. “A lot of times you’ll hear kids say ‘Well, we couldn’t write that. We couldn’t run that.’ So the self censoring, even as an advisor, you have always got that in the back of your mind.”
Several states have recently enacted “New Voices” laws, which essentially discontinue the practice of prior review on high school publications. For states that do not have such legislation, there are other courses of action that students can take.
“I think communication is key,” said Monica Hill, director of the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association. “I find often times when administrators realize that students are practicing responsible journalism, and they are participating in a quality journalism education opportunity, is that administrators will say ‘I trust you.’”
If a student or teacher has a question about the legality of prior review at their school, they can contact the Student Press Law Center, which offers guidance on how to handle the situation.