Readers of The Bear Press, the student newspaper of Hammond High School in Columbia, look to its editors for flinty but fair journalism. They usually get it.
A recent issue made sport of teacher hypocrisy. A Page 1 story reported that the Howard County school board decreed a new policy on smoking. For students, it is "prohibited in school buildings and on school grounds." Wait a minute, asked a Bear Press editorial: What about the smokers on the faculty who duck into the teachers' lounge for their drags?
Addressing the obvious double standard, the editorial said: "Teachers are hired to teach us and should set a good example ... It is time that members of the faculty started following their own rules and regulations." An accompanying double-panel cartoon showed a teacher catching two students smoking: "You girls are suspended -- NOW." In the next panel, the teacher is in the faculty lounge lighting up.
By fortune, Hammond High happens to have a broad-minded principal who respects the opinions and talents of The Bear Press staff. Luck has served the students -- with this principal at this time. It might have been different. Another principal could have spiked the editorial and cartoon, on the authoritarian ruse that kids aren't in school to monitor faculty behavior. If the students protested by citing their constitutional rights to free speech, as well as clean air, the principal could pull out last week's Supreme Court ruling that gave public school authorities immense powers to squash the editorial content of school newspapers.
The recent 5-3 decision, which reversed an earlier appellate decision, ruled that a Missouri high school principal was right to kill two 1983 articles, one on teen-age pregnancy and the other on the impact of divorce on children. Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, said that "educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."
The mistake of the Missouri principal, and the court's in backing him, was to ignore that "editorial control" can equal editorial silencing. Apparently, the two articles were not perfectly crafted. Few news stories, neither in high school papers nor the nation's 1,700 dailies, ever are. But that didn't mean the principal couldn't have worked with the students to improve the articles or to delay the press run if the improvements were difficult. Instead, he killed not only the two stories but the entire two pages on which they ran.
At Hammond High, where I was giving a talk to 400 seniors and juniors, I met also with the staff of the paper. It was the day after the Supreme Court decision had been reported. Kevin Naff, a senior and coeditor of The Bear Press, thought the ruling was "oppressive. It defeats the purpose of learning. We're taught journalism but without the constitutional rights to exercise it."
This fundamental insight points to the unofficial motto of all too many school boards and principals: "Students, you're here to think -- just don't get any big ideas."
Stick with the little ones, says the Supreme Court. You're teen-agers but don't write about teen-age sex. You seniors are old enough for constitutional rights like voting but not for such others as free speech. Heed Justice White's vagueness -- "A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its 'basic educational mission' " -- and not the wisdom of William O. Douglas: "The struggle is always between the individual and his sacred right to express himself ... and ... the power structure that seeks conformity, oppression and obedience."
What's the huge fear among principals when the school presses start to roll? Nothing grander than job security, I suspect. Let the kids write freely and soon enough some vigilante is shouting on the phone that subversive ideas are in the student paper. Stop it, warns the town censor, or I'm telling the school board to sack you.
If I were the faculty adviser at Hammond High, I would counsel the student journalists, in light of the Supreme Court ruling, to be more assertive in their free-speech rights, not less. Do some follow-up reporting, for example, on faculty smoking. A mix of investigative and stake-out journalism could uncover the names of the nicotine bunch. Print the names of the teachers, plus pictures. Where there's faculty smoke, let there be journalistic fire.
It would be great First Amendment learning, as well as understanding experientially the most crucial civics lesson of all, how and when to question authority.