Some journalism educators and high school editors said yesterday they are concerned that a new Supreme Court decision giving principals broad power to censor student publications will curtail the kind of issue-oriented student reporting that was fostered by the student rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
But some other teachers, administrators and students in the Washington area said censorship has not been much of an issue in the past few years and that students have been given free rein to report on such subjects as teen-age pregnancy and drug and alcohol use.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a Hazelwood, Mo., principal did not violate student rights to free speech by deleting stories about pregnancy and divorce from a school paper. The court's majority said school officials may ban any speech that they reasonably feel might be "inconsistent" with the school's "basic educational mission."
Some administrators said yesterday they welcomed the decision. "We've been waiting for it," said a spokeswoman for schools in Howard County. The decision "will make a big difference," said spokeswoman Patti Vierkant. Earlier court decisions "did not provide guidance on the isssue. Now we have something firm to go on," she said.
Some scholastic press representatives predicted a chilling effect on college and high school journalism.
"This is really a black day for high school teachers and high school journalism students," said Lois Kay, a University of Maryland journalism teacher and executive director of the Maryland Scholastic Press Association. Kay, former journalism teacher at Churchill High School in Montgomery County, said the decision puts new pressure on principals who formerly relied solely on journalism teachers to watch for problems such as libel.
"I'm concerned with the latitude that the Supreme Court decision gives boards of education and principals and administrators," said Sharon DiFonzo, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. "But I would hope that our principals would use extreme caution and discretion in censoring student publications."
The only major clash the Montgomery system had in recent years over student journalism was a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union supporting the quotation of some song lyrics by yearbook editors at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. The students won the suit but later withdrew the material voluntarily.
Current student editors in the county said they had not had problems with their principals or advisers over the use of controversial material.
Some student journalists in Arlington have fared differently. When Yorktown High School Principal Mark Frankel decided in December to cut a survey on alcohol and drug abuse from the school yearbook, students there launched a "free speech" protest.
Although similar surveys had been printed in student newspapers elsewhere in the Washington suburbs, Frankel said the survey's free-wheeling methodology left the door open for error and misinformation. His response to the protest was to set up a committee that will review controversial material proposed for publication.
Tanya Viscomi, an editor of the Annandale High School newspaper, said the decision "emphasized how little rights students really have." But, "as far as a newspaper goes, the papers here are published in good taste," she said.
Carolyn Howard, a writing teacher who advises the Interhigh Connection, a citywide high school newspaper published by the D.C. school system, said she has never had to censor her journalism students and she doesn't expect to anytime soon. Howard said no one questions the right of students to voice their opinions in print.
The Interhigh Connection's current issue features an article about student fighting that contends that despite administration claims to the contrary, schools are still plagued by fights, many of which are not reported.
The newspapers published in D.C. schools often lack original reporting on emotional social issues, concentrating instead on reports of student activities, faculty profiles and sports accounts. Most of the city's high school papers come out infrequently, largely because they are dependent on scarce advertising revenue, Howard said.
School spokesman Maurice Sykes also said the court's decision is unlikely to cause policy changes in the high schools.
"Students print pretty much what they want," he said. "They have a lot of latitude. They learn responsibility as well as the mechanics of journalism."
Jack Lynch, principal of the 2,400-student Osbourn Park High School in Prince William County, said there had been only a couple of instances in the last four years when he has felt compelled to get involved with a story in the school paper, "The Yellow Jacket." "I would hope that if anything important came up, I would exercise my moral conscience." He said he generally favored the Supreme Court decision.
Staff writers D'Vera Cohn, Alice Digilio, Marc Fisher, Veronica Jennings and Dana Priest contributed to this report.