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Sounds weird, I know, but it's not unusual. An estimated 6 million kids — one-third of all American teens — start their day with a 12-minute news program broadcast by a company called Channel One.
The deal is a bit tawdry: Channel One donates TVs to school districts and, in return, the districts promise to force their students to watch the insipid broadcast — and, of course, commercial after commercial. Buy Skittles. Drink Coke.
Lately, Channel One has also been broadcasting ads for the TRUTH, the 10-year-old but still oh-so-edgy ad campaign warning teens about Big Tobacco's skullduggery. The latest TRUTH ads are called "Whudafxup," and the word appears prominently in most of the spots.
Controversial, right? With that f-bomb tucked into the slang, you'd think the puritans would be raising hell. But at Globe High School, the controversy came only because a student dared to — gasp! — write about the campaign in the school newspaper.
After the December 7 issue of the Globe High School Papoose was printed, but before the student journalists could begin distribution, the principal announced that he was confiscating all 700 copies and destroying them. Future issues of the paper, the principal warned, would be subject to strict review.
The paper's co-editors, seniors Nathan O'Neal and Shelby McLoughlin, say that they were given two reasons for the school's censorship.
One was an editorial written by O'Neal, who described a "sullen and gloomy atmosphere" in the hallways and a lack of motivation among both students and teachers.
The nerve of that kid!
The other problem, O'Neal and McLoughlin say, was a headline: "Whudafxup with that?" Staff writer Taylor Rainwater had written an essay criticizing the TRUTH campaign — and dared to put the ad's title in the story's headline. That was inappropriate, the students were told.
So, it's appropriate for Globe students to be subjected to propaganda featuring the word "Whudafxup," but if a student dares to repeat the word while critiquing the propaganda in question, 700 newspapers need to be destroyed?
And high school administrators wonder why students are so sullen these days. Pretty hard to smile when your education is being managed by idiots.
High school students don't enjoy all the rights that adults do. They can't drink and can't vote. Most of them can't even buy a pack of those demon cigarettes.
But they do have the freedom of speech. The First Amendment applies even to high school newspapers — and when I consulted a lawyer who specializes in the issue, I was surprised to learn just how many rights high school journalists have.
Frank LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. He says that high schools have greater latitude to censor publications than, say, colleges, "but that is not unlimited."
"Even in a situation where a school sets itself up as the absolute arbiter of what goes into a student newspaper, they can't just censor willy-nilly," LoMonte tells me.
For 25 years, U.S. Supreme Court precedent has held that schools censoring student publications must have a "valid educational purpose," LoMonte says. If the students have done a terrible job and the paper is littered with grammatical errors, for example, the school can intervene. Or if, say, the students wanted to publish a graphic sexual description, the school could argue that it needs to protect its students and remove the offensive story.
But destroying the entire print run because a student used a word frequently shown on classroom TVs? That's a hard sell. For that matter, so is banning an editorial just because it has a negative take on the school.
If administrators allow a student newspaper to write positive editorials about school functions, LoMonte says, it needs to allow negative ones, too.
"If a student wrote an editorial saying that school spirit is at an all-time high, I have a feeling that editorial would be published," he says. "From the facts as you describe them, the school engaged in the most noxious form of censorship."
Suffice it to say, Sherrill Stephens, the principal at Globe High School, doesn't quite see things this way.
Globe is a small town, with just about 8,000 residents, and it seems even smaller by virtue of its isolation. Tucked into the Pinal Mountains, at the edge of the Tonto National Forest, it feels a world away from the bustling Valley — never mind that it takes only an hour and a half to drive there.
Principal Stephens agreed to take my call, after an admirably short period on hold. But when he got on the phone, and I again explained my purpose, Stephens' befuddlement was clear.
Why, he asked, would anyone in Phoenix care about the Papoose?
"It's really not much of a story," Stephens drawled, good-old-boy style. Then he refused to tell me why he ordered the issue's destruction. "If you saw it, you'd know why," he said.
I told him I had seen it. And I simply couldn't fathom what the problem was.
"The superintendent and I decided it was not appropriate," he said, again refusing to give particulars. "There were inappropriate things. We are in a small town. That is why. And we're doing a lot of good things here."
Maybe that's true. Maybe the football team notched some wins and the cheerleaders are pretty. But Globe High School is certainly not teaching its students much about good journalism — much less critical thinking.
The Papoose used to come out five or six times a year. I looked at a few years of back issues, and I was impressed. It's an attractive tabloid, with design good enough for a small college newspaper. It wins awards — including, last year, second place in "overall excellence" from the Arizona Newspaper Association's high school division. The two co-editors are serious enough about their work that both attended journalism workshops during last year's summer break.
This year, though, the Papoose has struggled. The longtime adviser retired, and last semester, the paper was stuck with a new teacher just arrived from the Philippines, a guy who made it clear he had little interest in newspapers. It didn't help that the school district auctioned off the newspaper's Macs and replaced them with a new computer system incapable of printing the newspaper's layouts, co-editors O'Neal and McLoughlin tell me.
It wasn't until December that the students managed to complete their first issue. Just getting it to the presses was something of a triumph.
It's a shame that the rest of the school never got to see it. What's even worse: O'Neal and McLoughlin tell me their next attempt at an issue didn't even get that far.
After the December 7 issue was junked, they say, they were told that the next issue would have to be vetted by no fewer than four teachers and administrators — and one school office worker. Not surprisingly, the late December issue didn't even get through half that roster before someone objected to an editorial about the Plan B "morning after" pill.
That issue has yet to be printed. (Principal Stephens denied knowing anything about its existence, much less the controversy over the Plan B editorial.) McLoughlin and O'Neal say it's no longer timely; they've given up on getting it out.
And here's the kicker. Now, the students say, the school is suggesting that its journalism class ought to help the district to publish a newsletter instead of putting out a real newspaper.
"They tried to assign us to do articles about the school and articles that could go out to the parents," McLoughlin says, rolling her eyes.
"They wanted a public relations tool," O'Neal says.
LoMonte, of the Student Press Law Center, says the students could have a decent lawsuit over the censored issues — and that there are plenty of lawyers around the country who take cases like this pro bono. God bless America, eh?
But neither editor wants to pursue it. They're getting ready to graduate, and they can't wait to get out of Globe to study journalism at Arizona State or, in O'Neal's case, perhaps, the University of Southern California.
McLoughlin says, "I want to see justice done, but . . ."
"But we only have four months left," O'Neal finishes.
I don't blame them for moving on. Still, it's unsettling that the students at Globe High School got to see plenty of commercials this year but, so far, haven't seen a single issue of their supposedly student-run newspaper.
"We are constantly being preached 'professionalism' and responsibility, but how can we be expected to perform to these standards if the boundaries are constantly being altered?"
That's the last line of Nathan O'Neal's editorial from December 7, the editorial Globe High School wasn't allowed to read. Principal Stephens may not agree, but I think it's a really good question — and it's safe to say the students aren't going to find the answer on Channel One.