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Contests can help promote
students making decisions


“You mean my students’ newspaper can’t win the top award? Just because I read their publication before it goes to press?” an irate principal asked when he called his state’s scholastic press association a few years ago. Well, not exactly, but in a way – yes.

The principal was questioning the Ohio Scholastic Media Association’s policy to give a special gold seal to schools that are open forums where student journalists make content decisions. The ratings they earn from out-of-state judges on their overall publications don’t change based on who makes decisions – they can be anything from All-Ohio to Honorable Mention with ratings in between. But the seal on their certificate or the asterisk on the PowerPoint during the awards ceremony or press releases, say “without prior review.” And that looks pretty impressive.

This started when OSMA formed from three previous regional organizations in the state. Each had been dedicated to improving learning and free speech, so the contests and critiques the new organization developed in 2006 were designed to do just that.

It didn’t seem fair to penalize a publication because it had an uninformed administrator who wanted to feel in control, but the emphasis had to be on rewarding those who understand the learning process goes so much better when student journalists CAN develop their critical thinking skills and don’t have to worry about someone outside their staff controlling decisions. So how best to accomplish that?

The OSMA board developed the gold seal idea and the simple materials that must be submitted to be eligible. Every newspaper or newsmagazine that enters must fill out a data sheet. This includes a question about prior review. If the publication doesn’t have prior review, then its staff must submit an open forum statement signed by the principal. We just added the same statements and designations for websites and yearbooks, too.

This statement is perhaps the best part of the process. The principal reads all the legally and pedagogically sound reasons open forums – and NOT prior review – are better for student journalists. It’s a pat on the back to those who already are hands-off, and it’s a little persuasive piece for those who have been too hands-on.

Has it changed any minds? No real data on that, but the principal in the beginning of the article did sign the paper the following year, so it looks like he drank the Kool-Aid – even if it was to get what he perceived as a higher rating for his students’ newspaper.

But at least the idea makes sense. It’s a way to encourage administrators and give them a chance to see the side of free speech they don’t always consider. Other scholastic press associations are also considering this. After a discussion at JEA’s SPA Roundtable in Washington, D.C. last fall, at least five other SPAs are talking about something similar. Anything that applauds free speech and is integrated in an already-existing program seems like a win-win.

 NEXT Candace Bowen blog post: Does a lack of prior review actual help students produce better publications and win more awards? Two research projects show that may be the case.


  1. Would be nice if all state associations did this. Principals love those gold seals! Can’t get them if they practice prior review!

  2. My only concern would be with a newsmagazine like the one I am the co-editor-in-chief of. Our school district prohibits us from being an open forum and the policy will never budge. WJEA and SPLC have tried to reason with the district, but that hasn’t worked over the years. So, JagWire would never be able to get a gold seal, which punishes us, the journalists, not the prior reviewers who could care less about the seals.

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