Sex in the school paper

In a small town in New Hampshire, everyone’s talking about the “sex issue” of the high school newspaper.

HAMPTON, N.H. (AP) — Some parents are protesting the “sex” edition of the student newspaper at Winnacunnet High School. Several said they were especially offended by a photograph of two women kissing under the headline, “Why men love women who love women,” a quiz question about anal sex, and an interview with an unnamed custodian who said he had found a vibrator in the girls’ shower.

The newspaper’s faculty advisor said the issue was meant to be informative. The principal, who doesn’t review the paper before publication, took unknown “private” action and “pulled copies of the paper that normally would have been sent to middle schools.”

On Critical Mass, Erin O’Connor thinks parents are “aiming their shock in the wrong direction.

There is something peculiar about parents objecting to students seeing a publication created by students, especially when that publication simply acknowledges what the students are already thinking and doing. The problem here — if there is one — is not a smutty newpaper, but the sexual precocity of kids who live in a culture that eroticizes absolutely everything, including children.

When my daughter was co-editor of her high school newspaper, the sex survey was fairly tame but some parents objected strongly to a news story about teens dealing drugs across the street from the school. I thought the stories — include an interview with a local police officer — were informative. The complainers didn’t want to acknowledge an unpleasant reality.

Admittedly, high school editors aren’t always good judges of how to cover a controversial issue. Some faculty advisors provide too little guidance, but it’s more common for advisors to do too much.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. wayne martin says:

    Couldn’t find the paper on-line, so will have to comment on this from the written reports:

    > The student paper’s editor in chief, Katie McCay, and
    > managing editor, Lisa McManus, said they wanted to
    > educate students, nearly half of whom are already having
    > sexual intercourse, according to a 2005 Youth Risk
    > Behavior Survey at the high school.

    > Several said they were especially offended by a photograph
    > of two women kissing under the headline, “Why men love
    > women who love women,” a quiz question about anal sex,
    > and an interview with an unnamed custodian who said he had
    > found a vibrator in the girls’ shower.

    It’s difficult for me to understand how kids who have not even graduated from high school are knowledgeable enough about sex to “educate students” about this topic (or much else, for that matter). Given a test on “sex”, what’s the probability that this staff of newspaper contributors would all pull an “A”?

    > “The kids wrote the articles and came up with the topic,” said
    > adviser Carol Downer. “They didn’t go out to cause controversy,
    > but the Winnachronicle is also not a P.R. piece for the high school.

    Doesn’t seem like adviser Downer is doing much to qualify as an advisor, if she agreed to this.

    The following is a link to the personal journal of one of the contributors of the paper:

    http://yellville.livejournal.com/

    Not much here except some “smirks” from a gleeful teen that he had caused a ruckus with this edition of the paper.

    The parents have every right to be upset. Wonder if the media will track this situation and see if the School Board does anything about it, such as require all student papers to be reviewed before publication?

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Since students seldom have lots of money, the school is ultimately responsible for a school paper’s contents. Some colleges resolve this by running the paper off campus, probably a good idea.

  3. —-“They didn’t go out to cause controversy,
    > but the Winnachronicle is also not a P.R. piece for the high school.”

    I have been saying that for years about the HS newspaper of which I’m faculty advisor. But that statement itself is an incomplete justification for what happened.

    School newspapers should reflect student views and interests and they should never be required to show the high school in a positive light — any more than a regular newspaper should have to cast a city or state or national government in a positive light.

    But that doesn’t mean that HS newspapers shouldn’t have greater restrictions. They have to.

    Several years ago, some journalism students wanted to write an expose on a counselor they believed was doing a lousy job. I made sure that they were balanced in their reporting and that they offered to interview her. Still, the principal asked me not to run it. As an employee of the school, my involvement in public criticism of another employee could have constituted harrassment.

    I have had students want to write about gang rivalries among their peers. Such stories are quite newsworthy but the risk of such reporting inflaming violence makes them not-printable.

    As for sex in a school newspaper, my students often wish to push toward and find the limits of what is acceptable — sometimes reaching way over those limits (stories outing suspected homosexual students, lists of who is thought to have which STDs, advice columns with vivid sexual detail…

    There are lessons for students in what is and isn’t appropriate in a public forum and what is and isn’t possible within the rigidity of a school community.

  4. wayne martin says:

    > Several years ago, some journalism students wanted
    > to write an expose on a counselor they believed was
    > doing a lousy job. I made sure that they were balanced
    > in their reporting and that they offered to interview her.
    > Still, the principal asked me not to run it. As an employee
    > of the school, my involvement in public criticism of
    > another employee could have constituted harrassment.

    This is an excellent example of why strict oversight of a student paper in a high school setting is required. While there is no reason to suggest that student papers should reflect the prevailing view of school administration policy (whatever that might mean), there is every reason not to allow a student paper to cross over the line of slander, libel and harassment, Keeping in mind that there is a hungry lawyer sitting around his well-appointed office waiting for an opportunity to relieve someone of a pound of flesh and a dollar or two.

    Most kids have no assets, making the whole issue of liability very dodgy. If the school gets sued, maybe it’s the insurance company that ends up paying the settlement. But then again, maybe not. Ultimately the taxpayers have to pick up the tab, whether its higher property taxes, or higher insurance premiums on policies written in that school district (indirect recovery by the Insurance companies).

    Best to recognize that kids that age have no common sense, no restraints and no reason not to hurt someone just for kicks—fully aware that they are not going to be held directly accountable.

  5. Prof210 says:

    I’d hope student reporters for school newspapers would want to write about issues like sex, drugs, and the quality of their faculty interactions. The rule should be to identify the sources, allow anyone mentioned in a story the chance to respond and to seek all sides of any controversy (what we’d hope for from our regular news organizations).

  6. As I understand it here in California, students have, by law, a significant amount of latitude in publishing what they want to publish. Prior restraint is certainly not allowed, nor should it be. I’m not even sure the faculty advisor can prohibit publication of a story, although he/she can (by definition) inform the students about possible consequences of their actions.

  7. wayne martin says:

    > I’d hope student reporters for school newspapers would
    > want to write about issues like sex, drugs, and the quality
    > of their faculty interactions.

    Articles that glorify sex and drug use have no place in a public school newspaper. It’s unlikely to believe that students writing about these topics would know much about the dark side of these topics to write responsibly about these topics.

    > The rule should be to identify the sources, allow anyone
    > mentioned in a story the chance to respond and to seek
    > all sides of any controversy (what we’d hope for from
    > our regular news organizations).

    While these might be reasonable rules, these rules alone will not insure student publications that don’t cross the line of acceptability for public school newspapers.

    Student newspapers don’t belong to the students—they belong to the State (and ultimately the taxpayers) which is the publisher. (Even if the paper to were offset its press costs with advertising, there is significant investment in the production of the paper by the public in terms providing facilities for the students to operate.) Without editorial supervision (by the School Administration) the normal checks-and-balances that would be found in a commercial newspaper are not in place in a school newspaper.

    Perhaps it’s unfair to claim that student newspapers set the bar of acceptable school behavior, but there is no reason to believe that they don’t contribute—one way or the other.

    The following article reported on some very undesirable behaviors of elementary students in a Louisiana school recently:


    http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/L/LA_SCHOOL_SEX_LAOL-?SITE=LAMON&SECTION=HOME&
    Mar 30, 11:32 AM EDT

    Kids allegedly had sex in classroom during assembly about killing.
    SPEARSVILLE, La. (AP) — Two fifth-graders had sex on a classroom floor while two others fondled each other in the classroom, according to a teacher at Spearsville High School.

    Student papers that deal with sex and drugs in irresponsible ways doubtless contribute to school environments where this sort of behavior can occur.
    —-

    > As I understand it here in California, students have,
    > by law, a significant amount of latitude in publishing
    > what they want to publish. Prior restraint is certainly
    > not allowed, nor should it be.

    This is a recent development, with this law coming into force just last year. It’s only a matter of time before something happens that will cause the Legislature to have to rethink the matter.

  8. I’m quite sure you’re mistaken, Wayne. That law has been on the books for several years. It may have been altered somehow in the last year, but California has had among the least restrictive laws in this area for quite some time. I have a little personal experience dealing with this.

  9. “The supreme court has roundly rejected prior restraint! I’m finishing my coffee…”

  10. wayne martin says:

    > I’m quite sure you’re mistaken

    Well .. half mistaken .. the law that I was thinking about was intended just for college newspapers, which did not enjoy this protection until last year:
    —-
    http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/news.aspx?id=16885

    Calif. bill would protect state college press

    By The Associated Press
    05.12.06

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. — University administrators would be prohibited from censoring student newspapers at California’s colleges and universities under a bill approved yesterday by the Assembly.

    California would be the first state to extend First Amendment protections to college journalists if the bill becomes law.

    “Prior restraint and prior review are not the hallmarks of democracy,” said the bill’s author, Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.
    —–

  11. wayne martin says:

    I came across this WEB-site which contains a lot of archived articles and information about Student Press Law:

    Student Press Law Center:
    http://www.splc.org/splcinthenews.asp

  12. Spangler says:

    Wayne, you’re sadly mistaken. There are clear differences between student newspapers and school newspapers, according to the Supreme Court. A lot depends on whether or not the state the school is in is a Tinker state or a Hazelwood state (look at the related Supreme Court decisions).

    Student newspapers are declared public forums and students make all editorial decisions. This actually protects the school districts if they make such a declaration. The instant that a school official makes an editorial decision (whether it be explicit or arguably even implicit such as the principal being looking at the paper prior to publication/distribution) the school has now assumed full responsibility for all of the content. So if the school assumes that responsibility, then its assets are now at risk (school, teachers, school district, etc.) can now be sued. If it is a designated public forum and students make the sole editorial decisions, then only the assets of the publication (and editorial board, potentially) are at risk.

    The role of the advisor is someone who educates the students on sound journalism and, if the paper is also a class, assesses how effectively the students practice the skills they have been taught. The advisor also serves as a pseudo legal counsel in that any article that is clearly (and in some cases remotely) libelous can not be published. As an advisor of a hs newspaper, I have conferenced with many student reporters on why their articles do not meet the standards of good reporting and sound journalism, graded the students accordingly, and watched them publish said articles anyway. The next lesson after the paper containing one of those articles is distributed is usually one of accountability and personal responsibility. The students often learn to never repeat that “mistake” again after hearing the public backlash and fortunately few have to learn it the hard way (after publication).

    I am particularly concerned by the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case currently under consideration by the Supreme Court. It looks like a no-win situation for both student free speech and school administrator responsibility: If the school wins, it officially make the school responsible for student behavior outside of the school day. Conceivably, if a student of a school commits a offense outside of the school day, off of school property, the school could be help culpable and school assets placed at risk. If the student wins, it could indicate that even nonsensical messages are constitutionally protected.

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  1. […] Eric Buscemi wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptHAMPTON, NH (AP) — Some parents are protesting the “sex” edition of the student newspaper at Winnacunnet High School. Several said they were especially offended by a photograph of two women kissing under the headline, “Why men love … […]