HSJ Institute Times
Risky Business: Journalism AdvisingThursday, June 30, 2011 By Suzi Van Steenbergen
When the principal interrupted her speech class to pull her out into the hallway, veteran high school newspaper adviser Gayle McKinney didn’t quite know what to expect. Upset that his column, traditionally published on the first page of the school paper, had been moved to the back page, the principal proceeded to “yell and scream” at McKinney while her students waited. According to McKinney, the principal angrily “stabbed at the newspaper,” making it clear that “as long as I am principal at this school my column and picture will be on the front page.” He continued to threaten McKinney’s job, saying “if you do this again I will take the newspaper from you and you will probably lose your job.” McKinney was stunned. Her nine years of teaching at Willis (Texas) High School had not prepared her for the stunning rebuke from her boss, especially for something seemingly so innocuous. “I was just aghast--I couldn’t believe it. The kids were horrified.” -- Such is the terrain for high school journalism advisers, who must balance multiple--and sometimes competing--roles, such as school district employee, classroom teacher, mentor, and free speech advocate. “Teachers ride a fine line on campus,” said Rebecca Plumley of Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas. When making decisions about what to put in the paper, “you have to make the call based on your students and where you are with your school.” Plumley was speaking at the Reynold’s Institute for journalism educators at UT Austin. Plumley has an invitation for her own high school students who wish to push the envelope. “If you love what you’re writing enough to be with me for 5 years [to fight a lengthy court battle], I’ll be right there with you, baby,” Plumley says. -- Those who do not teach journalism might assume that only controversial issues such as sex or drug use, or explosive stories that uncover official misconduct, might put advisers at risk. But as McKinney discovered, sometimes other factors like school politics or changes in administrative leadership might put advisers at risk for reprisal. In McKinney’s case, her relationship with the previous principal had been cordial and supportive. He had reviewed the paper prior to publication, but there were never really any issues. “Then the new principal came in.” Realizing that her job might be on the line, McKinney ultimately apologized and did as the principal asked, moving the column back to the front page. McKinney has found that having conversations with students about what they can and should publish has been fruitful. “I think that’s really been good for the kids. They say, ‘is this something we do want to say?’” -- For students and advisers who are faced with a censorship or other challenge, it can be challenging to know how to proceed. “When in doubt, it is best to comply first,” said Mike Hiestand, attorney with the nonprofit Student Press Law Center (SPLC). Hiestand recommends contacting the SPLC, which provides free legal advice and resources for student journalists and advisers on a variety of aspects of student press law. According to the SPLC website, approximately 2,500 student journalists, teachers and others from all 50 states and the District of Columbia teachers and others contact the Center each year for help or information. Hiestand’s ASNE presentation reviewed the myths and realities of student press law, including major supreme court decisions and some of the differences between states regarding what administrators can do to restrict or “restrain” student publications. The presentation was received positively by educators. “I’ve learned a lot here [at ASNE] in knowing what we can and can’t do,” McKinney said. After hearing more details about the reality and some of the legal protections within student press law, McKinney feels more empowered to encourage her students to exercise their press freedom. “Now that I know we have some protections, I might let the kids go with it,” McKinney said. “At the same time, we have to watch it. I’m still going to have to tell them ‘you still have people you answer to.’” -- Some states have passed legislation that protects advisers from employment retaliation based on what students publish in the school paper. The California adviser protection law, which took effect in January, 2009, protects an employee from being "’dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against’ for solely acting to protect a pupil's speech, or for refusing an administrator's order to illegally censor speech,” according to an SPLC press release. When asked if having a similar law in effect would change her approach with student journalists, McKinney was it would. “I think it definitely would. If I felt protected, I would let the kids really learn to be true journalists instead of feeling like they had their hands tied so much.” But McKinney recognizes that her newspaper does depend on certain community support, including the school board, which reflects a reality that many scholastic journalism programs face. “We are fully funded for printing, and it comes from the school board, so we do have people we answer to. We can’t do anything we want,” she said. ASNE attendee Michele Richardson (a pseudonym), who teaches English and journalism at a small K-12 school in Texas, also thinks that students do have to think about their audience when making publication decisions. “One thing that seems to have been pounded in [at the institute] over and over is that you have to know your community, and you don’t want to push so hard that the community pushes you away,” Richardson said. Richardson learned first hand the difficult position advisers sometimes find themselves in during her first year advising the school’s paper. The paper’s editor published a satirical piece on “senioritis” that caused some unexpected waves. Reading much like a mock news brief, the piece included the “signs and symptoms of senioritis.” The principal was quite upset, making sure to let Richardson know that he didn’t want to see similar stories in the paper in the future. “He read it as an indication of our students not caring about school anymore and thought that the tone was one that advocated giving up on students,” Richardson said. “It caught me off guard because we had generally had a positive relationship.” Richardson then explained to her principal the intention of the piece as a mild satire, but the principal did not see it the same way. Richardson remembers him saying, “I don’t want to see anything like that in the paper again.” When asked whether an adviser protection law would change her approach to teaching journalism, Richardson was clear. “Absolutely not,” she said. “Because if they want to get rid of us, they find a way."