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If the arguments don’t work…


One of the law unit test questions in my Teaching High School Journalism course at Kent State goes something like this:

“You want to convince your school principal your students SHOULD have more free expression rights. Explain ONE good argument you could give him or her.” (10 pts.)

My hope is, if they graduate and become journalism teachers, they will be able to do more than jump up on a First Amendment soapbox and rant about their students’ rights under the Constitution. I hope they can do more than cite their own possible state laws or even point out students’ limited rights with the Hazelwood decision.

Although it took me about 25 years, I finally decided those arguments based on law and democracy didn’t go as far as some of the educational ones.

Tell the principal how much students learn when they are allowed to use their own critical thinking skills. Explain how that process is short-circuited when an administrator steps in with demands. Emphasize the chance students have to practice democracy in action under a trained adviser. Reiterate the value of civic engagement. Remind the administrator students learn others will think for them if they don’t get to think for themselves.

That is basically what I expect from my undergraduate education majors when they answer that question on the test.

Now I’m afraid I flunked a real-world test of my own.

I had the opportunity to talk to a school board last night, a group that was considering prior review of a solid, responsible and often award-winning publication. It isn’t a Pacemaker, but it has an adviser with background, one who participates in the state association and takes her kids to workshops. It has editors who care and want to make a difference.

The five local citizens, all male and a variety of ages and backgrounds, didn’t like a story that ran last spring. They thought it might be libelous. (I’m not a lawyer, but I sure couldn’t see that potential, and the SPLC agreed.) They thought it made them look bad. (It was covering a problem in the school….from a variety of angles and with a whole range of sources.) And they worried similar stories in the future — though there had been no problems before last spring — would make it hard to pass levies.

So for three hours, two student editors, then the adviser and I talked to them. I used all those educationally sound reasons and more. I talked about pedagogy and asked them what they wanted their students to learn. Oh, yes, we want them to learn, they said. Oh, yes, education is important. And, yes, they thought the editors were trying to do a good job, and, yes, they thought the adviser was a wonderful person and a great teacher. But….

They don’t have a new policy yet — that will come after more meetings and more discussion. But, bottom line, they want to have control. Period.

And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get 10 points on that question in the real world.

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