I GUESS I underestimated the power of the student press. For the last issue of The Woodley Leaves (the Maret School paper), I wrote an editorial -- a critical commentary on what I saw as the racial imbalance at Maret and the tensions it has created. It wasn't intended as a personal attack on anybody, nor was it meant to be mean-spirited.

On the contrary, most students who did see the piece in advance felt strongly that this was an important topic that needed to be addressed. Little did I know what an up-roar it would cause. After meetings with the faculty adviser, the head of the upper school, the headmaster and my co-editor, this controversy ultimately led to two resignations from the paper -- the faculty adviser, who was against running it, and my co-editor, who was for it -- and a blank space on the front page of our paper. My faculty adviser was blunt: "You can't print this," he said.

I've since learned from colleagues and former editors at other schools that what I ran into at Maret was by no means unique. Step too far, and the nerves of any school adviser are equally sensitive -- even when the issue has nothing to do with obscenity, personal attacks or false perceptions.

Censorship in high school newspapers is a far more complicated issue than I had ever imagined. A school sponsors its own newspaper -- relying on responsible editors and reporters to present the students, parents and public with a balanced collection of school-wide concerns and reports. Because the school pays for the paper, the administration, which is the publisher, does have the right to approve or disapprove its contents.

At the same time, however, a liberal education requires teaching a full understanding of freedom, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But when it comes to the question of a school's newspaper, we have a dilemma because the student's view of freedom of the press demands one thing and the school's right as publisher to control what goes into the paper may demand something else. Then, too, there's a certain conflict of interest involved because the school, which publishes the articles in the paper, is also often the subject of them.

Censorship doesn't always mean that an article that was supposed to run is cut from the newspaper; there are other, subtler ways in which the administration can control the content.

At Georgetown Day School, for example, a conflict arose this year between the administration and students about an article a student wrote about the aesthetic appeal of the new upper school building going up on River Road. The author quoted the director as saying that the new facility was "ugly," with a picture of the site and a bold headline: "Director Calls Building 'Ugly.' " The article ran on the front page. The day the paper was printed, the dean of student affairs withheld the issues until the director of the school had had a chance to see the paper.

After the director had seen the paper in question, fewer issues than normal were distributed, to reduce the number of readers -- who include family, alumni, visitors and prospective students. The editor of the Auger Bit, David Smith, told me that Georgetown Day students had lost some faith in the ideals taught by the school as a result of the incident. "A school such as GDS should promote the ideals of freedom of speech and pursuit of knowledge," Smith said. "And when a school stops doing that for some reason -- so that school may look good -- then the school sacrifices an important part of education."

The faculty adviser for the Auger Bit, Susan Hertz, said that it was important to know that what happened was "not censorship, but caution." Both faculty advisers had approved the issue before it went to press, she said, although the dean of students affairs, who objected to the article, had not seen it prior to its publication.

"I think we made the right decision," Hertz said, "and some good things came out of that experience. It allowed an airing of opinions for both staff and students, and in that sense, it was a good experience. We discussed the fact that a school newspaper is not the same as a city paper . . . . We also decided that, in the future, the activities director should look over the paper before it's printed -- and that's not to say that he will have the final say, or that things will be censored, but that he will know what's coming out so people can be warned rather than surprised."

At the Sidwell Friends School, neither the administration nor the faculty reviews the paper, The Horizon, before it is printed. This practice gives the students freedom, but it also imposes responsibilities.

The paper ran into trouble last year when the editors decided to print an article about diversity in the student body. The article concerned a letter written by a faculty member that suggested two approaches for achieving diversity at Sidwell. According to Matthew Hoffman, executive editor of The Horizon this past year, "Horizon . . . incorrectly stated an opinion of {a teacher} due to an editing error." Sidwell editors are given a large amount of freedom because the faculty adviser doesn't see anything before it is printed, "so if it's printed, it's printed, and there's nothing they can do about it," Hoffman said. The teacher whose views were incorrectly reported then demanded a retraction and resignation of the entire staff. The editor-in-chief at the time, William Pao, did retract the statement and publicly apologized for it. The staff did not resign.

JoAnne Lanouette, the Sidwell faculty adviser for The Horizon, said that it was definitely not the administration that called for the retractions and resignations, but that it was "one teacher's personal reaction, which the administration did not support."

In talking with the editor of Annandale High School's newspaper, The A-Blast, I found that the newspaper staff there does a close-to-professional job of handling editorials. In the newspaper's regular meeting, editorial topics are suggested by all staff reporters and each topic is put up on the board. After all suggestions are made, they choose a topic to write about, discuss it in full and decide where the staff stands on this issue. They appoint a writer to "have the right" -- in other words, to reflect the consensus of the board -- to write the editorial, then they print it in the paper without a byline.

"So," said business editor Mark Kehoe when I asked him about censorship, "we really don't have many problems. Our faculty adviser does not have the right to say to us, 'You can't print this.' If she disagrees with us on something, she has to meet with the editorial board, {the editor-in-chief, the business editor and the managing editor.} If the problem continues and she still disapproves of the article, then we go to the administration and both sides present their views. But that doesn't happen much." Kehoe could not think of a single instance in which the board was told that it couldn't publish something.

Unfortunately, editors at Woodrow Wilson High School's The Beacon in D.C. don't enjoy this type of freedom. David Groberg, former editor of The Beacon, described one incident:

"An article we wrote had a paragraph in it about a speech contest at our school and it was really casually mentioned that one of the students who had won the contest had been over the time limit. When it came down to running the story, our sponsor objected to it and we had to cut out the paragraph so that there was no mention of how the student ran over the time limit. But that's not really big deal censorship.

"Another time we wanted to print an article about a fire that happened one day at the school, in the school store, before school started. There was a question of liability, which in the end didn't matter at all. But the sponsor said, 'Absolutely not, no, you can't print this.' When we pressed her, she said, 'No, because the principal wouldn't let us.' We then went to the principal and he said he had absolutely no problem with it. So we eventually got the story in, but by then it wasn't really news."

This is nothing when you hear what else is dictated to editors and writers at Wilson: "We would get a list from our sponsor of articles to assign. We were told what we had to write about," Groberg said. There's little use in the Beacon editors trying to experiment with controversy or other new issues because "the paper itself is a class, so you get a grade for it. It's a journalism class, even for the writers."

With guidelines set by the sponsor and with the threat of grades hanging over their heads, the Beacon editors were frustrated. Groberg and Josh Cohen, an editor with Groberg, broke away from The Beacon to build their own completely student-run paper, with an adviser and funds from the Neighborhood Planning Council. This new paper, established around this time last year, is called Fourteen Points, underneath which is written: "Now You Have a Choice."

Wilson's principal, Michael Durso, said that there "are two sides to every story . . . . Last year's conflict had lots of facets to it." There are always going to be some kinds of boundaries for journalists, Durso said, "but with high school journalists, they think that any kind of restriction is censorship." Referring to Groberg and Cohen, he said, "I'm not convinced that the editors left because of censorship. . . . They wanted no boundaries, and I just couldn't allow that."

Back to my experience at Maret. Samuel Zeoli, my faculty adviser, believes that "ideally there should not be censorship but. . .the main reason for the confrontation was that the standard procedures were not followed as they should have been. I think that if I had seen the piece a week ahead of time, we could have resolved the problem by discussing it. But because we were already at the printers, and there was already a space allotted for the article, the decision had to be made within a day -- to let the newspaper go out or not. It was the time pressure."

Censorship will continue to be an issue among high school papers. It is the administration that chooses to have a school newspaper. In so choosing, the administrators choose to affiliate themselves with what's written in it -- and they pay for it. So the paper is, in the legal sense, "their" (the school administration's) paper. They, therefore, have the legal right to say what's acceptable or unacceptable in a school publication.

But the purpose of education is to give students a sense of direction and a knowledge of alternatives. A liberal education requires taking other people and their ideas seriously. To say that issues of serious concern to students are not appropriate for publication because they're controversial or may portray the school in a bad light is a kind of discrimination -- it treats students as second-class citizens. It's certainly not an approach that's consistent with the ideals of a liberal education.

To avoid controversial issues in editorials -- like teen-age pregnancy or drugs -- implies that those particular issues don't affect students at the school, which is not always true. Is it justified to censor controversial editorials for the protection of the school image? How can it be right to tell a student it is wrong to be curious, interested? Is it right to put a limit on the knowledge others seek? How does that prepare us to be citizens?

As students, we're encouraged to use our minds. As a practical matter, we can't be stopped from talking about these issues. But it seems hypocritical to say that we can't write about them if the paper "belongs" to the school. How will not writing about them change reality? To ignore issues, concerns that arise among students gives a partial picture of what the school and ultimately, life, are all about.

Papers can be edited. But can life?

Julie Asher, a graduating senior who was co-editor-in-chief of the Maret School's Woodley Leaves, will be a freshman at the University of Vermont next fall.