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Bromley: Lessons in school censorship

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BARABOO — The good thing about censorship of student publications — the ONLY good thing — is that it’s an educational exercise.

Students learn so much in fighting for their First Amendment rights. They learn the extent of their resolve. They learn that the ideals of the Bill of Rights extolled in the classroom aren’t so revered by school administrators intent on protecting their fiefdoms. And they learn that there’s nothing like a swimsuit issue to boost circulation.

We’ll get to the swimsuit issue in a minute. I take you first to Fond du Lac, where high school students have learned administrators will not only censor their news coverage, but censor their coverage of censorship of their coverage.

Fond du Lac High School’s student newspaper, the Cardinal Columns, won multiple awards this year, including a prize for a recent article about rape victims at the school. After publication of the piece, titled “The Rape Joke,” administrators enacted oversight guidelines. Let it be known that award-winning journalism will not go unchecked at Fond du Lac High.

As rebellious teens will, the staff responded with an article about these new strictures that featured a photo illustration of a teen with duct tape over his mouth. The principal instructed them to remove it — the illustration, not the tape over the kid’s mouth.

“If censoring a graphic on censorship isn’t a textbook definition of the word ‘irony,’ I’m not sure what is,” University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh journalism professor Vince Filak told the Fond du Lac School Board.

Fond du Lac School Board President Elizabeth Hayes said the photo illustration was disrespectful and “reflects back in a negative way to one or more individuals.” Here is the key lesson for students: The First Amendment is sacred, unless its exercise makes school administrators look bad. Then it’s last week’s lunch menu.

The struggle of the Cardinal Columns staff calls to mind my own nearly a quarter-century ago in Lancaster. In the May of my senior year, I was working with my co-conspirators to plan the final edition of our underground student newspaper.

We were coming off our swimsuit issue, which featured the heads of students and staff grafted — using scissors and glue — onto models’ bodies. Remember, this was 1991, when nobody had Photoshop and Madonna didn’t have a British accent.

Our paper wasn’t as hard-hitting as the Cardinal Columns — instead of investigative articles about rape and expulsion, we featured fictitious faculty profiles and a tongue-in-cheek advice column. It wasn’t the New York Times. Or even the Country Valley Weekly Dime Saver.

But we clashed with school leadership nonetheless. Our first issue criticized the quality of the sanctioned student newspaper and the faculty’s oversight of it, a stance that earned me a trip to the principal’s office and got my paper kicked off campus.

An article about the junior varsity football team getting into a fight after a blowout loss got me dragged into the hallway for a dressing-down by the coach. I kept extra pairs of underwear in my locker that year.

On the plus side, being renegades meant we didn’t have to operate through official channels. School administrators could block us from distributing our paper on school grounds, but couldn’t stop us from publishing.

We spent most of the year handing out our paper across the street before school, even on bitter mornings. It was the first of many warnings about how cold journalism is, all of which went ignored. Here I am, a generation later, still writing screeds in protest of censorship.

Censorship of the Cardinal Columns prompted Fond du Lac High students to organize a protest, a sit-in that was short-circuited when students were threatened with citations for truancy or loitering. About 10 moved their protest across the street. Others were herded into the school theater, where the principal listened to their concerns and answered questions.

Here’s another key lesson: Our freedom to express ourselves and assemble peaceably is celebrated down the hall in civics, but disregarded when it becomes uncomfortable for school leaders.

What are Fond du Lac’s students learning from their educators? That the First Amendment should be observed only when it’s convenient for those in authority. That journalism shouldn’t challenge the powerful. That administrators care less about students’ rights to self-expression than they do about protecting their fiefdoms from threats real or imagined.

And to think, the Cardinal Columns didn’t even depict any of them wearing skimpy swimsuits.

Contact columnist and former Arrow Free Press editor Ben Bromley at bbromley@capitalnewspapers.com.

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