Fighting Prior Restraint

You want to know how administration can suck the life out of a high school broadcast class?  Practice prior restraint.  

What is it?  Prior restraint is defined as “censorship imposed, usually by a government, on expression before the expression actually takes place.”

No high school or district administrator wants to be accused of censorship.  That word has a very negative connotation, so they do not admit to it.  They often practice it, they just don’t admit it.  When your students have to run story ideas by any administrator, they are operating under prior restraint.  They are being censored.  

So that is step one in fighting the censorship battle.  You have to call it what it is.   

Then you have to get someone in a position of power to advocate for your kids.  The classroom teacher can only go so far before he or she can be considered insubordinate, and face punishment, or firing.  Somewhere along the way, a person who can help bring about change has to take the students’ side. Sometimes that support can come from the outside, like the Student Press Law Center.

Battles against prior restraint are always best fought by the students on the broadcast staff themselves.  Students can speak to school boards, local news media, utilize social media, and carry the fight for their rights to the larger audience.  In fact, why wouldn’t they?  Challenge your students who whine about restraint.  Do they really care enough to act?    

I can not imagine any teen journalist enjoys being told NO when they want to cover topics like teen pregnancy, or kids whose parents are divorced.  Those were actually the two topics censored by the Hazelwood East principal when the school newspaper tried to cover them, leading to the 1988 Supreme Court decision, on a 5-3 vote, that limits student press rights.  By the way, those in the majority were Justice Byron White, who wrote the Court's majority opinion, which was joined by Justices Rehnquist, Stevens, O'Connor and Scalia. 

The Hazelwood decision has throttled a lot of scholastic journalism in the years since.  To get on solid ground about all this, I recommend you read, “Fighting Censorship After Hazelwood.” 

In my 27 years of experience, the best way to fight prior restraint is to get your administrator to trust you.  To trust the broadcast students to do a solid, professional job covering the more typical stories about clubs, games, assemblies, you name it.  I have seen so many high school shows that are careless and sloppy in their coverage of that kind of content—why would any administrator feel comfortable about the same kids reporting drugs in school, or cheating on tests?  Build your credibility first, then push the envelope.

Finally, there is one more way to get stories past the administration—by first getting them past the biggest censor of all, the broadcast teacher.  That is the sad truth.  Many stories never get out of the gate because the teacher kills them first.  The teacher knows when a topic will put him or her in the crosshairs of the principal, or the coach, the board member, or the colleague across the hall.  So they discourage students from doing those stories to begin with.  

This is a great argument for becoming an “open forum for student expression,” a policy that legally gives content decisions over to the broadcast students themselves.  They are held accountable, not a teacher or principal.  The students.  What a concept!