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Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010 09:54 am

Free the student press

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is disturbed by research showing our nation’s high schools are failing their students when it comes to instilling in them an appreciation for the First Amendment and civic issues. 

“Civic education – and, with it, civic learning – has been in steady decline for decades,” she writes in the forward to Sam Chaltain’s new book, American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community. “As a result, too many young people today do not understand how our political system works, or how to be seen and heard in meaningful, effective ways.” 

The best measure of a high school’s commitment to civic education is the nature of its student news media. A student newspaper can provide the most visible evidence of whether schools just preach or actually practice First Amendment principles, democratic learning and significant civic engagement.  

All high schools in America receiving federal funds are required to hold an educational program about the U.S. Constitution every Sept. 17, the anniversary of the signing of the document in 1787. On Constitution Day schools will offer special lessons about the principles of democracy and the virtues of American freedom. But beyond that talk, how many schools are actually doing the walk?

The student press is a telling sign.

If school authorities recognize their student newspaper as a forum that serves the functions of authentic journalism, if they nurture free and responsible student news media and if they trust the student press to provide a meaningful and effective way for students to be seen and heard, chances are, democratic learning is at the core of the school’s culture.

However, if school authorities want to control the student press rather than cultivate it, if they want students to learn obedience rather than responsibility and if they want to silence rather than share diverse – sometimes unpopular – perspectives, chances are, autocratic administrators are impeding the school’s civic mission.

Too many school authorities are too quick to censor controversial student expression that they disagree with, find discomforting, consider overly critical or otherwise object to for additional reasons. By exercising clout rather than collaboration, administrators demoralize and alienate learners. They may control the learners, but they sure don’t convince them.

Good schools support authentic journalism and democratic learning when they strike a proper balance between the press rights of students and the pedagogic responsibilities of educators. Students are empowered but not emancipated; educators are authoritative but not authoritarian; and the school culture is collaborative and not autocratic.

Help has arrived for proponents of civic education. A new initiative by the McCormick Foundation, supported by the Illinois Press Foundation, can help resolve student expression controversies while inspiring students and administrators to engage in dialogue. Protocol for Free & Responsible Student News Media is a handbook to guide scholastic journalism stakeholders in ethical decision-making. (See http://www.freedomproject.US/Education/Protocol.aspx to read the Protocol report.)

Sandra Day O’Connor believes in experiential learning: “Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we all learn best by doing.”

Schools that practice democratic learning build civic responsibility, and no indicator is more telling of school commitment to democratic learning and civic engagement than the way administrators deal with the student press. Such an examination will reveal the correlation between rhetoric and reality. 

Randy Swikle is state director of the Journalism Education Association and a member of the board of directors of the Illinois Press Foundation and the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association. He is a retired journalism teacher in Johnsburg, Ill.
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