Editorial: District Should Continue to Protect Freedom of Expression in School Newspapers

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Recently, there has been much controversy over the Mountain View High School Oracle’s two-page spread of articles about sex and relationships. Outraged over the newspaper’s content and a sexual phrase used within one of the articles, parents are petitioning the School Board to limit the rights of student publications in the district, and have all content approved by newspaper advisers. Although students on The Oracle made the wrong decision by publishing recklessly provocative content, freedom of journalistic expression is vital and the district should continue to protect it.

California Education Code 48907 protects the rights of student journalists. Schools cannot censor student publications, except in the cases of libel, slander, obscenity, or any content that presents a clear danger of disrupting the school.

Student journalists who want to cover controversial topics, such as sex, are well within their rights. More important, though, is that freedom of expression for high school papers has invaluable benefits.

Student newspapers like The Oracle are important forums for students to write about issues, and hopefully spark discussion about them. It’s true that sometimes the controversy over articles, like those The Oracle published, can take away from generating a valuable discussion. However, students shouldn’t be forced to avoid covering important issues. Often controversial topics are the most important ones to cover, because our community hasn’t yet come to an agreement on what to do about them.

In addition, giving students the decision about whether, and how, to cover those issues is one of the most valuable learning experiences high schools offer. That isn’t to say that student journalists should be able to publish anything they want, but student newspapers do have decision-making bodies, like editors and editorial boards. Decisions about content should come from them, not from an outside censor, or even from a journalism adviser. This gives students hands-on experience with making choices that affect the wider community.

With great power comes great responsibility, and taking away that power deprives students of the chance to learn about responsibility. If student journalists are forced to rely on a district employee to tell them the answers, they won’t have to worry about morals or boundaries. That’s a bad thing. Long after students have graduated, they will need to be capable of responsibility, independent thought and understanding morality—all valuable skills, and all taught by student journalism.

Giving students accountability early on teaches them how to use these skills effectively. It makes them stronger thinkers, and better people, who are capable of wielding the power they hold. Students do, inevitably, make mistakes. Giving students the ability to make those mistakes and deal with the consequences is another important lesson, regardless of whether students choose to pursue careers in journalism.

The district does and should stress leadership, and other non-academic skills that will help students succeed long after they’ve graduated. What better way to do that than in organizations like The Oracle, where students are free to make their own choices, and yes, sometimes, their own mistakes? Although student publications may not seem like a standard, or even an important part of traditional education, few experiences do more to teach students valuable lessons.

Student newspapers should be places where freedom of expression and taking risks are encouraged. Outside censorship has no place in them, legally or morally.