What is the Role of a Free Press?
The Voice of Freedom
We thought that we knew how big the alcohol problem was among students at Westport High School. We thought it was not as bad as national surveys made student alcohol use out to be. And we had implemented a breathalyzer policy to guarantee that all school social events, at least, were alcohol free. But then the Villager, our high school newspaper, did a survey on drinking. It showed us just how wrong we were.
It wasn’t that the overall numbers were that bad — albeit worse than we expected. But the paper also asked how often people drank. And that’s where the shock was. Some of the students surveyed said they could not get through a day without a drink.
The Villager ran the piece as its cover story that week and later ran an interview with a student who clearly had an alcoholism problem. At Westport High School, we could longer pretend we didn’t have an alcohol problem. Our high school newspaper has seen to that.
Many administrators might see that last bit as a problem. After all, no one wants to see negative news items about their school in any newspaper, let alone in a student publication. Isn’t the school newspaper supposed to be a public relations tool that showcases the good things that happen?
We don’t do that. We don’t censor the paper. We don’t engage in any form of prior review. The students own the newspaper. They are responsible for what it says and what it does. What they decide matters to them and the students who read it.
As a result, the Villager has become something much more than a public relations tool that no one either reads or believes. First, it has had a dramatic impact on school climate. There are student cliques at Westport High School, like every other high school. The difference is ours get along with each other. In part, that’s because over the course of the year, members of every subgroup become the topic of some news or feature story in the paper. Part of the Villager’s mission statement -- a statement that students decided they needed and developed on their own -- is to build a greater sense of community within the school. The result is the staff constantly tries to find ways to remind students of their classmates’ humanity.
Many of the paper’s editorials appear to have a similar aim. They constantly urge all of us to become more respectful of one another. And they are as quick to point out our successes as our failures. Further, they reveal the issues that students confront. After reading an interview with a teenage alcoholic, a girl who has recently had an abortion, a boy who has tried to commit suicide, or a student who works 40 hours a week and doesn’t get home before 11 p.m. most nights, it is difficult for any of us to ignore that students live complicated lives that have a direct effect on their ability to function in the classroom.
With stories such as these, the Villager forces school staff members to take steps toward improving students’ lives. Equally important, the Villager is an avenue for open and clear communications about where students are coming from. More than once, items in the paper have made both teachers and administrators rethink decisions that have been made.
Not that the students’ opinions always make sense. Sometimes their ideas are ridiculous. Sometimes a writer’s opinions are so negative or idealistic that we wonder what galaxy the writer lives in. But even the most far-out columns serve positive purposes. Sometimes a writer just needs to blow off steam. Sometimes a column is part of the process of growing up -- a moment of public adolescent rebellion that eventually leads to greater maturity. Regardless, we’d rather have the ideas in print in the school newspaper where the students can learn to harness their energy, anger, and intensity, than in an underground publication where that emotional angst just feeds on itself and creates greater negativity in the long run.
In addition, the staff of the Villager is more concerned with responsible action than with rights. Students spend as much time exploring the ethics of their stories as they do creating them. Every student understands that with his or her right to freedom of the press comes the responsibility to use those rights ethically. And they will tell you that any school can have this type of newspaper if they have the courage to give students ownership of their newspaper.
This article, written by Harry Proudfoot and Alan Weintraub, appeared in the March 2001 issue of Principal Leadership, published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. To read the full text of the article online, visit the Student Press Law Center’s web site.
Saturday, May 18, 2013 | 23:34:29