During my senior year of high school, a number of football players were accused of sexually assaulting a girl at a party, sparking months of investigations and eventual suspensions. A couple weeks ago, a white student at the school posted a picture of himself in blackface, making fun of a black student organization. Both incidents made local and state headlines, dominating the news cycle for weeks, but there was one place where you would have found little mention of either of these stories: the school newspaper.
Because our funding came directly from the school, we were beholden to the wishes of the principal and various other administrators. When we wanted to cover the sexual assault story, doing basic reporting like any self-respecting newspaper would, we were told to “steer clear” of the topic. When we wanted to write an editorial about sexual assault policy instead, we were told to not reference anything specific. If we did, our funding would have likely been pulled.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my school newspaper was functionally a propaganda machine, the loyal comrades to the Lenins and Stalins of the administration. The other editors and I published stories about events and clubs, showing off the myriad of commendable things about our school, but we were never allowed to be critical of the administration — of the hand that fed us.
And I wasn’t the only one who saw a problem. Although my high school’s paper is by no means a good model for independent journalism, some schools have it even worse. A number of other veterans of high school journalism I’ve talked to at Yale were required to have their principal read over the entire paper before publishing, allowing the people in power to pick and choose what information was disseminated to the student body.
There are horror stories everywhere.
A student paper in Colorado wanted to publish two editorials, one supporting a plan for mandatory underclassman study halls and one opposing it. The principal, however, censored the editorial against the plan, leaving students only to read the pro-administration viewpoint.
A student paper in Virginia wanted to publish a story on drug use trends at the school, but the principal redacted the story, deeming it too mature for its readership. Time and time again, relevant information is repressed, cut by the hands pulling all the strings.
Unfortunately, this suppression of information is mostly legal. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that school officials are allowed to censor sponsored publications as long as it is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” a relatively low standard for first amendment protections. Some states, such as Maryland, have passed laws protecting free expression in these student publications, but most are still subjected to the Hazelwood standard.
This censorship stands in stark contrast to newspapers like the Yale Daily News, which are independent and therefore are not subject to restriction or retaliation from its corresponding institution. Regardless of your opinion on the content of this paper, you can rely on the News to at least cover a story that might make Yale look bad, even if President Peter Salovey calls the newspaper in an angry huff. Take, for example, the plethora of stories on the renaming of Calhoun College last year, which certainly did not reflect positively on Yale’s administration. At my high school, none of those stories would have ever made it past the first draft.
In an age when media free speech is increasingly coming under attack from barely disguised demagogues seeking to restrict the flow of negative information, protecting the First Amendment right to free expression is all the more important. It is hypocritical that those who bemoan Trump’s baseless attacks on the New York Times and CNN ignore a culture of censorship at the secondary and even, sometimes, the university level. Those same administrators who trash Trump at dinner parties are waking up and imposing their own dictatorship on the schools they run.
It’s a shame the first time I’ve been able to write about these two despicable incidents is in the News, and not in my high school newspaper, where they belong. This cause probably doesn’t directly apply to Yale students, who take the benefits of an independent newspaper for granted. But Yalies ought to remind themselves that not everyone enjoys the same privilege. No matter at what level, a free press is worth fighting for.
Conor Johnson is a first year in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .