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Atheist student's editorial pulled from paper
By Jack McElroy
Sunday, February 26, 2012
By 11 a.m. Thursday, more than 150 comments were posted on Knoxnews.com reacting to that morning's story about Krystal Myers, the editor of the Lenoir City High School newspaper, whose editorial about being an atheist was rejected by administrators who feared it might be disruptive.
The comments reflected a vigorous debate over freedom of religion.
But, not surprisingly, it's the freedom of press issues I find most intriguing.
Such cases involving school newspapers always bring up the question of censorship.
People get confused about censorship, sometimes accusing the News Sentinel of censoring content. That's not censorship. In fact, it's an expression of press freedom. The News Sentinel has a First Amendment right to publish what it wants.
If the government suppresses content, however, that is censorship.
High school newspapers are a special case, though. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that a school paper is not "a forum for public expression" and administrators can reject content based on "legitimate pedagogical concerns."
That makes sense. After all, the schools are the publishers, and publishers have to be able to exclude content they consider inappropriate for their readers. Imagine the sort of juvenile junk that might appear if school papers were run just by students.
But often the problem isn't with immature content. It's with material that's too mature, and too controversial.
The Supreme Court case involved stories about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. A few years ago, stories about tattoos, body-piercing and sex caused a clampdown on the Oak Ridge High School paper. Articles about drug abuse, teen suicide, homosexuality and, yes, religion are also frequently banned.
That's too bad, because these are topics kids really care about, and the stories are ones they would actually read and discuss. Which is, after all, what newspapers — and educators — want to see happen.
Still, "teachable moments" emerge even when schools censor their young journalists.
For one thing, students learn the real-life lesson that, if you want to get something in the paper, you first have to get it past your bosses, in this case school administrators.
They also learn that, in the news business, you sometimes must be willing to face criticism, even hostility, from people who don't like what you write.
Administrators, meanwhile, are reminded that being a newspaper publisher is a messy business, and stifling content can be more of a hassle than simply publishing and letting "disruptive" debate occur.
I sometimes wonder what happens to the young people who find themselves in the midst of such disputes, which must be among the most formative experiences of their high school careers.
Do they find too bitter the taste of the trouble they've stirred up and write off journalism forever? Or does the flavor of free expression exhilarate them, and they pursue careers that allow them to come back for more?
The latter, I hope. If we shrink from controversy, we might as well not have a First Amendment.