By Tony Palmeri
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression annually awards “Jefferson Muzzles” as a way “to draw national attention to abridgments of free speech and press.” The recently released 2014 Muzzles “honor” nine free speech abusers, including the Obama Justice Department for its unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records. Two Muzzles went to high school principals in Florida and New Jersey, one for censoring a student graduation speech and the other a student newspaper.
I’d like to nominate Fond du Lac High School Principal Jon Wiltzius and District Superintendent James Sebert for a 2015 Jefferson Muzzle. In March, Wiltzius and Sebert announced their intent to enforce “School Guidelines Determined by the Principal regarding Student Publications.” The guidelines establish a system of prior review, empowering Wiltzius and Sebert to make revisions to or fully censor writing in the Fond du Lac High School student publication Cardinal Columns.
The announcement to enforce the guidelines was a response to two items in the February issue of Cardinal Columns. The first item, Fondy senior Tanvi Kumar’s cover story “The Rape Joke,” suggests the existence of a “rape culture” in its telling of the stories of sexual assault survivors in their own voice. The second item, an editorial called “I Pledge My Allegiance,” alerts students to their right not to the stand for the Pledge.
In applying the Wiltzius/Sebert prior review guidelines to the two items, it’s difficult to understand the administrators’ position. The items do not “substantially interfere with the educational process, educational environment, or rights of other students.” Indeed, the two items taken together are highly educational and empowering for students. Nor can the items be “reasonably perceived to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.” The item on the Pledge is clearly labeled as the view of “Editorial Staff” on a page that welcomes letters from students and faculty. Finally, the items are not “poorly written, inadequately researched, false, defamatory or libelous, vulgar or profane, unsuitable for immature audiences, or biased or prejudiced.”
The English Department faculty at Fondy High (these are the folks who evaluate student writing for a living) said this: “If anything . . . The attention this controversy has stirred up has confirmed one thing: our students, allowed some freedom to work together to think critically and make informed choices on their own along with the guidance of a highly qualified instructor, are capable of truly amazing things. Such work should be celebrated, not censored.” (emphasis added).
Unfortunately, Fondy High journalists are not alone in having to deal with Big Brotherism trying to pass itself off as a benign attempt to “protect the rights of all students.” A terrible 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, welcomed Big Brother into the school newsroom by holding that ”educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” That unfortunate decision had the practical effect of watering down1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines, in which Justice Abe Fortas famously argued “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
One can understand and even sympathize with how a principal and superintendent, especially in a “conservative” region like Fond du Lac, would be uncomfortable with student writings that force recognition of a rape culture and urge defiance of the principal’s command to stand for the Pledge. But trying to relieve personal discomfort is not the kind of “legitimate pedagogical concern” needed to justify the enforcement of prior review guidelines. Justice William Brennan’s dissent in Hazelwood ably articulated the problem with trying to defend censorship policies in the name of such pedagogy. Brennan wrote that such policies in no way “furthers the curricular purposes of a student newspaper unless one believes that the purpose of the school newspaper is to teach students that the press ought never report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors.”
Tanvi Kumar will be attending George Washington University in the fall. GWU Law Professor Jonathan Turley had this to say about the controversy in which this courageous young woman and all Cardinal Columns staff find themselves embroiled: “At a time when many children are game-obsessed and disconnected, you have high school students here with the courage to look at a taboo subject and make it accessible for other students. The response of the school teaches an entirely different lesson about conformity and authority. Indeed, the board and administrators appear to want the students to write to the lowest common denominator on the least controversial subjects. That will certainly make their lives easier, but it does little to advance the true education and development of these students.”
Mr. Wiltzius and Superintendent Sebert would be wise to listen to the Fondy English faculty, whose 22 page statement on the matter shows conclusively that the prior review guidelines are based on unsound pedagogy, will chill student journalism, and could place the District at legal risk. Listening to reason might even help the administrators avoid the honor of a Jefferson Muzzle.
Tony Palmeri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh.