News: Puttin' Out the Bone

Words of wisdom

Apr 19, 2001 at 2:06 pm

To the Bathrooms — and the Barricades!
Dude. If you care about your high school, tear out this column, get in the bathroom, lock the door and start reading.

In fact, forget high school. If you care about your future, do it. We're talking rebellion. My God. We're talking America.

OK. Got the door locked? Right on. The deal is this: You've got to go to school tomorrow and get the words, "This newspaper is a public forum for student expression," printed in the editorial box of your high school newspaper.

And you've got to keep those words in the paper from here on, even if they're in a small font. And even if the teacher who moderates your paper is too dense to understand their implication. Definitely get them in if your high school principal is an intellectual coward.

Those nine words are your best chance of maintaining an honest exchange of ideas. Without those words in your paper, you'll live in the journalism climate of a third world junta.

You see, in 1988 five conservative Supreme Court Justices voted to severely limit the First Amendment rights of high school students who distribute news in their public schools. The result is the recent mess at Walnut Hills High School, where a cowardly principal spiked several pieces that dared to discuss one of his policies and criticized one of his administrators.

Students from a public high school in suburban St. Louis asked the Supremes to reinstate a series of articles, on teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children, that were spiked by their principal, who thought they were too controversial and sensitive to the student subjects. The five judges ruled the principal could stop the stories, because school environments have special characteristics, and censoring kids is different from censoring adults.

But judicial experts agree, including those at the Student Press Law Center (, that if a school paper openly exists as a forum for free student expression, it cannot be arbitrarily censored, save for such reasons as libel, provoking violence or promoting substance abuse.

But the real question is why are those nine words of protection even needed? I mean, why would a principal hired to prepare kids for life in an increasingly complex world stop a newspaper simply because it informs, questions or even criticizes? That's what all good journalism does. That's what all good classes do.

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath raises a hundred questions about the nature of man, capitalism, even police brutality. If kids can debate a piece of art and the light it sheds on the human condition, why can't they discuss and criticize things that touch their lives once the bell rings? Simple. Cowardice of the principal.

Look. Every high school kid knows the real buzz around their school won't be found in the school newspaper. They also know it's because of the principal. Show me a school paper that reads anything like an adult newspaper. Where are the articles about the major discipline incidents in the school, even with names removed to protect juveniles?

Where are stories about interracial dating or cheating on tests or a gay kid who's trying to figure out where to fit in or the pressures to abuse substances on the weekends or teachers who can't teach? Where are the stories about bullying and its potentially deadly effects? Where are high school newspapers that honestly cover the life that makes up a school?

About 12 years ago, I got hired to coordinate Cincinnati Public Schools' High School for the Communication Professions.

An edgy junior dropped a provocative editorial cartoon on my desk one morning. I knew it deserved to be published, yet would be a test for my superiors. At the center of the cartoon was the school district's then-superintendent, Lee Etta Powell. In the end, the principal's superior took the cartoon to Powell herself, who merely shrugged and said, "Run it."

Every tough, interesting topic that kids were talking about appeared in Cincinnati Youth Times. Yes, the words, "Cincinnati Youth Times is published as a laboratory vehicle of free student expression," became a staple in the paper's editorial box.

Schools are changing across America. Every pedagogy that meets the test of research says kids need hands-on learning that promotes critical thinking. To embrace that and then spike a bunch of stories in the school paper is like saying you love Alaska and then voting for George W. Bush.

Dude. You've got the picture. Now flush the toilet so your parents won't know why you're hiding in the bathroom. And go to school tomorrow with your mind on rebellion.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.