Frequent commenter Here’s Johnny thanked me for choosing his analysis of the recent ethics quiz on school paper censorship as a Comment of the Day. Truly, the thanks goes in the other direction. Comments like his, which dig deeper into a story than my initial post has is a gift to Ethics Alarms and its readers. On the blog’s predecessor, The Ethics Scoreboard, I would generally post only a couple of times a week. Often that meant I could thoroughly research a topic before publishing (it also meant fewer typos, and almost no readers comments). I decided that a blog format that permitted covering more of the ethics landscape, which was (and is) vast and expanding, more quickly if less thoroughly was better suited to my mission. Nonetheless, as in this case, many of the ethics tales require more research, context and nuance than I have time to apply.
This commentariat is superb at filling the blanks. Indeed, for every Comment of the Day I post there are probably five that I could have posted. It is not so much of an honor for the commenter as a rescue for the blog. Most readers, I have found, don’t read comments to posts, for the same reason I usually don’t: on most sites the comments are useless, depressing, and horrifying. Ethics Alarms comments are, in contrast to all but a few other sites (Althouse comes to mind), are important supplements to the main essay, offering not merely a different perspective, but additional information as well
Heeeeeeeeere’s Here’s Johnny’s Comment of the Day on “Ethics Quiz: Censorship At Northwest High”…
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 to kill the paper 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.