Free speech has its costs
December 11, 2008
Parents must experience this a thousand times, but I have no children.
So, this was my first.
I was sitting behind my enormous desk and she was standing there with her hands in her pockets, looking shocked and angry.
We were arguing over her use of the phrase “WTF” in the first sentence of her front-page editorial. I said no. I’ve been a newspaper editor long enough to have an instinct about what will set people off. Sometimes I’ll take the risk.
This time, it wasn’t worth it.
“Everyone is going to know what it means,” I said. “And it will offend some of our readers.”
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“I’m trying to make a point ” that all the abbreviations we use every day have taken away the power of words,” she said.
“Can you make that point using another phrase?”
She couldn’t think of one.
“Listen, I know this is the reason you didn’t want to publish your school newspaper through us, because I have the power to censor what you say. But you’re taking a risk with my newspaper. You won’t be the one who has to deal with the consequences.”
“I want to deal with the consequences.”
“I know you do,” I said. “In the end, you’ll get what you want because you’re fighting for it.”
She walked out of my office and back to the rest her friends who were gathered around the desk of news editor Drew Munro, watching him lay out the front page or their/our newspaper.
“Watching someone else do it is so much different than sitting at a table with scissors and paper and doing it ourselves,” I heard her say.
It was late in the evening, dark outside, and a handful of teenagers from Middle Park High School were in the newspaper office watching as we placed their articles in the Sky-Hi Daily News.
It was part of a compromise they reached with the school administration who want the power to monitor what goes into a newspaper created by students and distributed at the school.
Open Book, the title of the student’s newspaper, is not a class project. MPHS doesn’t have a journalism class, nor an official high school newspaper. Just a group of kids who want one.
But the students wanted total control or nothing at all. (The Colorado Student Free Expression Law, passed in 1990, governs free speech protection to student journalists. To read a copy of the law, read this editorial online at http://www.skyhidailynews.com.)
The school doesn’t want to deal with angry parents or worse if the students write something offensive.
MPHS principal Jane Harmon and East Grand superintendent Nancy Karas approached me with the problem and asked if the Sky-Hi Daily News would act as a sort of intermediary, letting the students use our pages once a month, until the school board had time to research the legality of the situation and make a final decision about content control.
My goal with the Sky-Hi Daily News is to make sure everyone in the community has a voice.
I agreed immediately.
But if you decide to give a voice to a group of frustrated high school students, you have to be prepared to listen to some pretty angry talk.
Among the MPHS newspaper staff are some the smartest kids we have in Grand County. They’re informed. And they’re passionate.
But, until they graduate from high school and move out on their own ” they are under the supervision of adults. And they hate it.
“I remember feeling that way,” I said to Drew after the students left our office.
I was the managing editor of my high school newspaper just like that girl with her hands in her pockets staring at me across my desk. (My high school actually had a newspaper ” with computers for lay out, a darkroom and a room full of couches where we would make fun of our teachers and all the other out-of-touch adults in our lives.)
As I rolled my cursor over her “WTF” and pressed delete, I painfully remembered being on the other side of the desk ” fighting for something I believed in and not understanding why no one saw my point of view.
As I pressed delete, I floated above myself for a second and had that realization that parents must have constantly ” that I’ve changed.
I changed slowly and daily until I became this … an adult.
She changed a little too that night ” the high school girl who had been censored.
She sat for a while with her arms crossed in the other room, watching Drew lay out the paper and she calmed down.
“I guess it doesn’t totally ruin it,” she said.
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