I wrote editorials for my high school newspaper. The administration got quite annoyed with me for several of them, particularly the one that exposed the fact that the students in the “accelerated learning” program were often not disciplined for the same offenses that got other students suspended. (Also annoyed with me was my best friend at the time, who almost immediately got suspended as the school decided to prove there was no favoritism to the the best students (though, of course, there was). Still, nobody ever threatened to shut down the paper based on its content.
Then again, our paper never published anything about sex….
The students on the staff of the school paper at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska were ordered by administrators to use the names they were given at birth for their bylines because using their “preferred names”—apparently three of the students were transgender, whatever that means now— was too controversial. In defiance, the student journalists dedicated an issue to LGBTQ. issues, with two columns on the topic and a news article about the origins of Pride Month. The school responded by ending the newspaper entirely. The paper had been in print for 54 years at Northwest High, which has about 700 students and is the only high school in Grand Island, a small city about 95 miles west of Lincoln, the state capital.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:
Was shutting down the newspaper an ethical move by school administrators?
There are really several ethics questions here:
- Was it fair to shut down the paper for a single episode of students challenging the school’s administration?
- Was the demand of the administrators regarding student by-lines so unreasonable that defiance was justified, even mandatory?
- How can the students be criticized for being interested in and writing about the same issues that are swirling around them in the media and popular culture? Is the school paper supposed to only have stories about school plays and football games, and be indistinguishable from the school paper at Riverdale High, circa 1964?
- I learned a lot as an editor for my high school newspaper. Is it a responsible trade-off to kill a valuable educational opportunity at the school because the paper challenged authority—you know, like journalists are supposed to?
- Yet schools can and should have guidelines for what are acceptable topics for a student newspaper.
Not germane but I have to ask: a Nebraska high school newspaper staff of 15 had three transgender students on it?
What the hell?
26 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Censorship At Northwest High”
Were there any adults in charge of the students putting out the paper and, if so, what role did they play in advising the staff how to handle the school’s demands?
There was a faculty advisor, it seems. There always is, I assume. Ours, the journalism teacher, barely interfered with the paper’s content at all….even when I published as an editorial a gag column I made by clipping the lines out of a terrible submitted piece, stringing them together in a chain of gibberish, and slapping a nonsense headline on the thing “Discrimination in Portugal.”
As I suspected would happen, nobody noticed.
Like you, I flagged on the number of alleged transgender students—being three—–and found myself wondering WTF as well.
That’s how social contagions look.
“Was shutting down the newspaper an ethical move by school administrators?”
No. It was pure retaliation.
“Was it fair to shut down the paper for a single episode of students challenging the school’s administration?”
No. From the information presented here, it appears that the administration did not present the students with an ultimatum to follow their instructions or the paper would be shut down. They abused their authoritarian authority.
“Was the demand of the administrators regarding student by-lines so unreasonable that defiance was justified, even mandatory?”
Yes. As long as the by-lines are not foul language, by-lines are chosen by the author, period.
“How can the students be criticized for being interested in and writing about the same issues that are swirling around them in the media and popular culture?”
They shouldn’t be criticized for being interested in and writing about the same issues that are swirling around them in the media and popular culture. Being involved in a school newspaper is a learning experience and making the choices of what to write about is part of that learning experience; of course there should be “some” guidance and maybe even some authoritarian veto power from the teachers directly involved with the newspaper with regard to the appropriateness of what’s going to print based on common decency and the target audience of non-adult readers.
“Is the school paper supposed to only have stories about school plays and football games, and be indistinguishable from the school paper at Riverdale High, circa 1964?”
Even though that should be a large part of what goes to print as “news”, no that should not be a limitation. See statement above about appropriateness of what’s going to print.
“Is it a responsible trade-off to kill a valuable educational opportunity at the school because the paper challenged authority—you know, like journalists are supposed to?”
Absolutely not! As far as I’m concerned, the administration abused their authority and wrecked what could have been a valuable teaching moment.
Jack asked, “a Nebraska high school newspaper staff of 15 had three transgender students on it? What the hell?”
That may seem a bit out of proportion; however, I think that is an interesting factoid that reflects either the regional society these students live in or the willingness of people to get publicly involved in something like a school paper. I’ve noticed that social justice warrior types are very much outspoken and in-your-face activists and choose to get involved to push their agenda; maybe that’s why there is such a high percentage of people identifying as transgender in this particular group.
Believe it or not, I was the biggest contrarian and rebel on the school newspaper. By far.
Jack Marshall wrote, “Believe it or not, I was the biggest contrarian and rebel on the school newspaper. By far.”
There’s got to be one in every crowd, you might as well be that one. 😉
I don’t know about the ethics of the newspaper elimination, but I hope these guys have a copyright waiver for use of the Minnesota Vikings’ logo.
Worse than being censorious, the Minnesota Vikings might have something to say about their mascot
Suing fawning high schools is a bad PR move. But they might waive their copyright if they don’t protecvt it. Good catch!
I would bet that it is licensed. It is good PR for the pros to allow such use, not to mention that it kind of amounts to free publicity.
As is often the case, we are getting just part of the story and being asked to render an opinion based on incomplete information. Unless we dig a bit further, our decision would be either: it never is okay to shut down a high school newspaper, or, it is okay for administrators to shut down a high school newspaper.
In this case, one reason we are lacking information is that school and district officials seem unwilling to even talk about it. A columnist for “The Grand Island Independent” says he was hung up on by someone at the district about as soon as he said who he was. A couple of officials have commented, but they essentially are non-comments. Zach Mader, Northwest Public Schools board vice president, told “The Independent” he remembers talks of shutting down the student paper should the school district lose the ability to control what they find to be “inappropriate content.” The district superintendent would only say that it was an administrative decision.
Whether or not the school could censor the student paper is a tricky question. It’s a public school, so administrators are bound by the 1st Amendment and by a Supreme Court ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The court ruling seems to allow censorship in some circumstances, but the school would have to establish that they had reasonable grounds. It appears to be simpler from a legal standpoint to just eliminate the paper entirely.
From an ethics standpoint, however, the decision seems completely wrong. One of the columns in the issue in question argued against a Florida law which is aimed primarily at securing parental rights in education, and which has been wrongly labeled by opponents as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. I don’t think the column describes the law accurately, but, so what? The Kuhlmeier ruling seems to allow censorship of articles that are politically controversial, but a better approach (from an ethics standpoint) is to allow fuller discussion. A second article which may have gotten some administrators knickers in a bunch is labeled “Science of Gender” and is more of a description of gender dysphoria than an argument, though it does offer suggestions for the person who believes their gender does not match what they were assigned at birth. A third article simply deals factually with information about Pride month.
You can see the Viking Saga issue that apparently led to the shutdown here: https://issuu.com/vikingsaga/docs/nwv05132022t01
Ah, yes, there were a few other questions.
BY-LINES: Student by-lines should be the legal names of the students or the name they commonly go by in the school (with administrator approval). It would be ridiculous for an administrator to require that Patricia could not use the by-line Pat or that Jack had to go by Johnathan. Administrator approval, because Burckhard could be allowed to go by Buck, but not by Fuck. The more pertinent question as to whether or not Meghan could be allowed to go by Marcus is a bit trickier. Does he use Marcus throughout the school? Has he had his name legally changed? Is he actually transitioning or simply thinking about it?
CONTROVERSIAL ISSUES: How can students be criticized for engaging in controversial issues? I should think that question answers itself, but, for school administrators everywhere who have the question, they should be praised, not criticized.
KILL THE PAPER: Is it responsible to kill of a student publication because the students challenged authority? No it is not. The reporter at “The Grand Island Independent”, Mike Konz, had the right answer to that: “Censoring the voices of teenage students only causes them to speak louder.”
THREE TRANSGENDERS: Well, maybe it is germane. I have tried to track down whether or not there were three transgender students on the newspaper staff. The “Times” article attributes that to a former student and the Student Paper Law Center. I did not find a mention of that in the SPLC article, nor in “The Grand Island Independent”, and I would need just a bit more information to get in touch with that former student. I can comfortably state there is at least one. Possibly, just possibly, the “Times” reporter is mistaken.
Second Comment of the Day of the Day.
Thank you, Jack, for the honor.
It’s going up first thing tomorrow!
It’s just possible the number is correct.
For the same reason that black students were likely over represented on school newspapers unless the school administration prevented it 40 years ago.
They had skin in the game, so to speak. And like Jews in the Middle Ages with commerce, being on a school newspaper was one of the few areas unlikely to lead to persecution.
Unlike, say, playing billiards.
I think the school overreacted. I say that from my own experience editing the newspaper at my private and parochial high school in South Carolima (mumbly-mumble) years ago. We wrote and ran some controversial copy, including about social issues of the early 1970s and our English teacher faculty advisor had our backs when administrators wanted prior approval of everything published. (“That’s what I’m there for”, I later found out she told the principal.) That kind of independence made everything in “The Scribe” more credible. I think it was also a factor in our being named the state’s top school newspaper by the SC Scholastic Press Association my senior year. As for bylines, would the school have suspended the noted journalist, as well as fiction writer, Samuel Clemens because of choice to write as “Mark Twain”?
Let’s have a round of applause for Gregg, a friend of many decades, a theater artist who worked on many of my productions, an astute baseball fan, but most relevant here, one of the very, very few of my friends (or, damn them, relatives) from other spheres who cross over from Facebook to this realm
And I appreciate it more than you know, my friend.
Aww, shucks, thanks, Jack. (Now where’s that “blush” emoji?)
Not germane but I have to ask: a Nebraska high school newspaper staff of 15 had three transgender students on it?
I assume this is more of a birds of a feather thing than a random chance thing. Though there are studies that say 20% of people are now LGBTQ. I’m not sure I believe it and if it is, I imagine its just the next new fangled thing, but I could be wrong.
As far as your question regarding what to do here I wonder if we could look at it as an example of first and second niggardly principles verse the third.
The school put a rule in place to avoid controversy (Whatever the reason).
The students felt this was a violation of free speech/identity thus to them it seems like the school is violating the first principle.
The students engaged in what I’m sure they believed was their version of the third principle, however it seems no attempt was made on either party to reconcile the second principle. Were attempts made to fix the problem? Did anyone speak to administration? Where is the advisor in all of this?
Since the students did not act in good faith (at least with the information I have), I would say the school is more justified in their action to shut it down. One unethical action does not justify another.
I guess I would also add if the school funds and runs the newspaper, they are the ones responsible for it. The school rule maybe wrong, but it’s still there name attached to it. They are the ones who are going to get the heat, not the students.
Those kids should look at it as a valuable learning experience for a future career in journalism in the 21st century. Say or write something that’s even a tiny bit out of line with the narrative to which you’ve been directed to conform, and you’ll be shut down.
The only oddity is that the LGBTQIAA++&÷ angle is reversed in this case, where normally any criticism of the rainbow alphabet corps is what’s met with instant cancelation, but the opposite seems to have occurred here.
As far as your questions, I concur pretty much wholly with Steve Witherspoon’s take on them.
However, a story from Grand Island caught my eye as that is where I was born, lo those many years ago.
Grand Island is a large city for Nebraska — at 50,000 or so it is the fourth largest town in the state (fifth largest on Saturday afternoons when Nebraska has a home football game, as Memorial stadium becomes the third largest). It is — according to my teachers in the 50s — the actual geographical center of the United States.
However, there are apparently two public school districts in Grand Island, odd as that seems for a relatively small town. Northwest Public School District has the one high school (700 students), but there is also a Grand Island Public School District with Grand Island Senior High School (2500 students). There are also apparently at least a couple religious high schools and one other school that does alternative education programs for 6-12th grades, but is apparently not considered a high school.
One more curious factoid: Grand Island the town has 23% minorities, but GI High School has 65% minorities, 90% of whom are Hispanic. Northwest High School has 18% minority enrollment, also mostly Hispanic.
Thank you for your attention. Here ends todays Public Service Announcement for Flyover country.
Yeah my first reaction here was “What?!? A writer is not allowed to use a pseudonym? Since when?”
Frankly, I don’t care the reasons why (the transgender angle). The school acted heavy-handed from the start and made a non-issue into a big fat mess.