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Don’t teach journalism by censoring students By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

Recently I came across an article about the efforts of Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Biondi, president of St. Louis University, to rein in the university’s student newspaper. The University News had criticized Biondi’s decision to put the SLU hospital on the auction block and had lampooned a fawning tribute to him in the alumni magazine. Biondi then demanded, and got, control of the process by which its editor is selected.

My reaction at the time was a resigned so what. As a former high school newspaper advisor myself, I know this kind of thing to be standard operating procedure at schools, both Catholic and public, at all levels. Page through the journal of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington-based advocacy group for student journalists, and you’ll see scores of similar cases of censorship, intimidation and bullying every issue.

I was prepared to let the Biondi news pass as just more of the same. But a couple of days ago, I got a call from a former students who’s now working toward a journalism degree at the University of Southern California. Even in high school she was a talented, tenacious reporter, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing her byline on some major stories in the years to come.

We reminisced about the fun of late nights with all the student editors, putting out the paper, eating junk food and exploring which corners of the school seemed spookiest after dark.

We also swapped memories of slugging it out with the administration over several censorship battles. She reminded me, with gentle good humor, that halfway through her senior year I resigned and moved on to other things, leaving her and her fellow editors to fight on alone.

Our conversation renewed the nagging sense of guilt I have always felt about that act of desertion, however justified it may have been under the circumstances. Consider these comments, therefore, a payment on an old debt.

Here’s what I have to say to the Biondis of the world: If you’re going to have a newspaper in your school, let it act like a newspaper. To have a newspaper and censor it or to expect the students to censor themselves is both immoral and poor educational practice.

Censorship tells kids we want mediocrity, not excellence. The better journalists students become, the more they probe, question and speak out, and the more likely an administrator is to snap them back. Ask student editors, and they’ll tell you: We could produce meaningless drivel, and no one would care. It’s when we put out good, provocative journalism that we get called on the carpet.

Is this really what we want kids to learn in our schools -- to shut up and stay out of trouble?

Censorship also sends the message that lying is OK when adults do it. However you slice it, calling something a newspaper but refusing to let its editors act like journalists is a lie, and schools tell that lie all the time.

Censorship is also, of course, poor teaching. What coach fields a football team but refuses to let his kids run the ball? What debate coach refuses to let her kids argue? If you don’t allow students to test their skills against real world standards, you’re not serving them well.

Some defend censorship by arguing that kids need limits. Yes -- the limits of good journalistic practice. They need to write stories that are accurate, fair, balanced and non-libelous. They need to write editorials that are well-researched and well-argued. They need to be held accountable when they don’t. What they do not need is to be hemmed in by the shifting boundaries of administrative convenience.

Others might argue that I’m stirring up a tempest in a teapot, that the fate of school newspapers is not that important in the total sweep of things. Wrong. We tell students to take their education seriously, to care about it, to believe that it matters. We must not undercut that message by allowing a school administration to distort the learning process in order to serve its own ends.

Moreover, by not helping students learn to act as responsible, independent journalists, we miss an invaluable opportunity to train the next generation of media professionals. This is an especially acute point in an era of widespread concern about the quality of mainstream journalism.

Despite all the reasons why I think schools should have student newspapers -- because they teach the craft of journalism, because they serve the school community by raising important issues, and because they give kids invaluable experience in writing, editing and thinking -- if administrators don’t want the hassle, my suggestion is simple: Don’t call something a newspaper if that’s not what you intend it to be.

Instead, call your program “public relations” and tell the kids up front that they are to act as a mouthpiece for the administration, not to think and speak for themselves. At least such an approach has the virtue of honesty.

If you’re uncomfortable doing that, then don’t have a newspaper at all. The school will survive.

Administrators, don’t think that if students and advisors haven’t said anything to you, that they aren’t churning over censorship. Frankly, they’re probably afraid of you. They figure they just have to take it.

Do they?

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. He can be reached at jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998