Censorship Was My Best Journalism Teacher

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LA Youth, Los Angeles

Dissatisfied with my journalism class in school, I decided to start a journalism club instead. I dreamed that the club would be everything the class should have been. It would give students a place to express themselves by publishing stories about local and national issues.

In the end, we never created a newspaper, because we didn’t have the support or guidance from a teacher. But we managed to produce a digital yearbook on CD at the end of my sophomore year.

Because of the stress involved in putting the yearbook together, I thought it would be easier for the club to have its own advisory, which is similar to homeroom, so we could devote more time to it. Instead, the school gave us an elective class for the next academic year.

Then, in late September, our journalism teacher informed me that the journalism club was being discontinued. No one asked the members of the club their opinions.

I questioned how the school had a right to shut down a club so abruptly. I decided to write an article opposing my school’s decision as an opinion piece for my high school’s new online newspaper. I turned in my first draft to my journalism teacher, and she handed it back to me almost immediately. She told me it was inappropriate and to rewrite the whole thing. She didn’t give me any instructions. I was upset, but did as she told me. I deleted more than half and added some good things about the elective. I turned in my second draft, and when I got it back, the small part I had kept in about the club being discontinued had also been deleted. My opinion piece was transformed into a promotional piece that said the elective was great.

Feeling like I had no other option and fearing for my grade, I let her publish the revised article on the newspaper’s website. I thought it was an infringement on my First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but as a student, I didn’t object because I wasn’t sure of my rights.

A few weeks later I researched the subject and learned that according to Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), students do not “shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This made me think that I wasn’t crazy in believing I had a right to freedom of speech even within school. But then I learned that in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that schools were granted the power to censor articles that could be considered disruptive to learning.

I realized that I didn’t know anything about my free speech rights. There are so many court cases about freedom of speech and I had never been taught any of them in either of my journalism classes. I wondered why not.

As the year progressed, my fears became reality. The elective was going nowhere. We spent our time on busy work like writing current events summaries and mini-magazine projects that ended up gathering dust on the classroom shelves. We didn’t create a yearbook or keep an up-to-date online newspaper. I was so frustrated. The students didn’t seem to care and my censored article haunted my thoughts. The class had gone from a marvelous opportunity to a horrible letdown.

I finally decided to ask my journalism teacher why she didn’t let me publish my original opinion article. Her response surprised me.

“As a journalism teacher, you’re between the wall and the sword,” she said as she looked at me thoughtfully. “You can give the students a certain amount of rights, but then you also have to go by school law and our regulations set on us by the state … personally I felt it was more of a journal entry than an article.”

The truth was I had been going through very tough times during those early weeks of school last year. I was struggling with my family and with myself. As a result, my opinion piece was filled with sarcastic comments about the discontinuation of the club and unfounded accusations that blamed other people for shutting it down, even though I didn’t have any evidence. Now I know that it’s poor journalism not to get the other side of the issue.

However, I still don’t think that I should have been censored. It would have been better if my teacher had tried to help me with my article. Sadly, no one at school did, and I found myself feeling defeated. In the end, even I didn’t put in the effort in class. Looking back now, I wish I had taken more initiative to make the elective work and had spoken to my journalism teacher about the problem.

© 2008 L.A. Youth, the newspaper by and for Los Angeles teens, http://www.layouth.com.