Oskaloosa student learns censorship lesson firsthand

Principal's taped remarks reveal efforts to stifle publication

? Principal Brad Reed had an uneasy feeling about Oskaloosa High School student Lacey Hanson’s line of questioning.

Reed, principal of Oskaloosa High School, confirmed his hunch weeks later when he reviewed the article Hanson had prepared for the school newspaper about plans for realigning the OHS teaching staff.

Reed decided Hanson’s story would require extensive editing — he made numerous recommendations — before he would permit it to be published in the school newspaper, the Oskaloosa Insider.

In a peppery conversation between Reed and Hanson, Reed told the senior she had a choice: Rewrite or drop the story.

“If I don’t see another article, it won’t go to print,” Reed said.

“Do you have the right to say that?” Hanson asked.

“Absolutely,” the principal said.

For John Hudnall, this exchange between high school administrator and high school student illustrates a widespread problem in Kansas with censorship of scholastic publications.

“I think it’s happening,” said Hudnall, executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Assn. “I’d have to think there’s a great deal of that going on.”

Lacey Hanson, a recent Oskaloosa High School graduate, was at the center of a censorship controversy involving her school paper and the school's principal. Hanson, who will study broadcast journalism next fall at the University of Missouri, is shown outside the school holding the version of the paper edited by the principal.

Jeff Burkhead, executive director of the Kansas Press Assn., said the situation in Oskaloosa was disturbing because state law wasn’t on Reed’s side. Kansas is among six states that supplemented the U.S. Constitution by passing statutes providing student journalists protection against administrative censorship. The Kansas law has been on the books since 1992.

“This obviously was a case of censorship,” Burkhead said.

In this instance, Hanson eventually gained Oskaloosa Supt. Loren Lutes’ consent, over Reed’s objection, to publish a version of the story in the Insider that was nearly identical to the original.

While cases of scholastic press censorship appear to be on the rise in Kansas and the United States, the hornet’s nest stirred by Hanson’s article offers a rare glimpse at pressure some students face when covering controversial issues for high school newspapers because Hanson recorded a lengthy discussion she had with Reed about the issue.

A simple idea

Hanson said she didn’t set out to spark debate about freedom of the press at the 250-student high school northwest of Lawrence.

The vice president of Oskaloosa’s National Honor Society and of the school’s senior class decided in April to write a story for the school paper about changes in work assignments for five teachers and the resignation of one teacher at the high school. She also planned to look into the administration’s process of observing and evaluating teacher work.

There were early signs of trouble.

Mary Ann Niemann, an educator in Oskaloosa schools for more than 20 years, was told she wouldn’t be returning next year as newspaper and yearbook adviser at the high school.

Hanson said that while conducting interviews with students or teachers, administrators would stand nearby to eavesdrop. One administrator hid behind a wall to listen, she said.

After Hanson’s interview with Reed in late April, the principal told Niemann that he would be reviewing the article, “USD 341 Faces Many Controversial Changes,” prior to publication. Hanson hadn’t starting writing it yet.

On May 6, Hanson gave a copy of the article to Reed. Publication had been planned for the next day.

Reed called the newspaper’s editor, Jaymie Paavola, to the principal’s office May 7 to talk about his ideas for altering Hanson’s story.

The principal took exception to reasons Hanson listed for the administration’s changes in faculty assignments. He said the motivation was to respond to state funding cuts and to give students the best education possible.

Hanson had written that Reed also made changes to get some faculty to teach a heavier course load.

On May 8, the principal produced an edited version of Hanson’s story. Reed wanted to cross out a half-dozen sections that delved into administration staffing actions. He cut quotes from students that were critical of the administration and general atmosphere at the high school. He recast a quote attributed to him. Also deleted were a paragraph about student press law in Kansas and a paragraph that urged people to attend a school board meeting to express their views.

“That constitutes censorship,” Hanson said.

On May 8, Reed also told Niemann the paper wouldn’t be printed as scheduled.

Hanson, who plans to study broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri, went to the principal’s office for an explanation.

She brought a small tape recorder, and turned it on. Reed did not know he was being taped, but such recordings are legal in Kansas as long as one party knows the conversation is being recorded.

A transcript of the recording shows that Reed told Hanson her article had to be redone because it contained inaccuracies and irrelevant information. Reed said the article didn’t live up to journalistic standards of the school newspaper. It also misrepresented the administration’s motives for reassigned teachers, Reed said.

He said on the tape that the article would cause a disruption at the high school. And, perhaps more to the point, he said the story made him look bad.

“What if I wrote something that was negative and put you in a bad light?” Reed asked Hanson on the tape.

“It depends,” she said.

“If I want to write an article about what a sorry individual you are, then I’ll write an article about what a sorry individual you are,” Reed said. “I wouldn’t write an article about student government and talk about your role in student government and pull something in about what a sorry individual you are.”

Reed also told Hanson that some information, even if factual, couldn’t be published in a newspaper.

“Just because something is true doesn’t mean you can print it,” the principal said.

In court cases across the nation, truth is a standard defense in litigation involving allegations of libel.

“I had hoped that you would rework the article,” Reed said. “I’ve seen your attitude here and I don’t think you’re going to do that.”

“I guess we’ll see what happens,” Hanson said.

Under pressure

An article about the journalism flap at OHS appeared May 9 in the Journal-World.

In that story, Reed said the debate wasn’t about high notions of the First Amendment. The principal didn’t want to say much about the controversy in two short interviews with the J-W, but he addressed the topic in detail with the weekly Oskaloosa Independent.

“The word ‘censorship’ is not in my vocabulary,” Reed told that newspaper. “You’re dealing with people who, if they don’t get what they want, resort to character assassination, intimidation and making it extremely bad for the person not giving them what they want.

“I’m the kind of person that stands on principle. At no time was there any attempt to change the story or the opinion of the writer or anything like that.”

He told the J-W all that was necessary was for Hanson to correct mistakes in the text. His decision to block publication didn’t have anything to do with the subject Hanson chose to write about, he said.

Hanson said she wouldn’t concede to Reed’s editing.

She hung her argument on the Kansas Student Publications Act of 1992, which says, “The liberty of the press in student publications shall be protected. School employees may regulate the number, length, frequency, distribution and format of student publications. Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”

On May 11, Hanson filed an appeal to Oskaloosa’s superintendent of schools. She referenced state law, promised to recheck sources and vowed that nothing accurate would be deleted from her article simply because Reed didn’t want the information published.

Hanson also offered to print in the school paper a response from Reed. “Without censorship,” she said.

The next day, May 12, Hanson took her case to the Oskaloosa school board. Dozens of students and parents attended the meeting.

“My article was censored and censorship is against the law,” she told the board.

On May 13, Lutes granted permission for Hanson’s article to appear in the school paper. Lutes said “significant” changes in the text made that possible.

Hanson said she changed little from the original draft but was relieved that the stalemate had been resolved. The newspaper was passed out to students on the final day of classes for seniors.

Not everyone was happy Hanson’s article made it into the Insider. Reed said the final copy still contained inaccuracies.

“I wouldn’t have sent it out if it wasn’t 100 percent corrected, but Lutes felt it was correct enough to send out,” he told the Independent.

Lessons learned

Now that the dust has settled at OHS, Reed said he could think of only one lesson that anyone could derive from the fracas.

“People need to hold … to high journalistic integrity standards,” he said.

He said there was no proof of an effort in the Oskaloosa school district to silence student thought or writing on issues viewed as sensitive by the administration.

“Not here,” Reed said.

Hudnall, who teaches journalism at Kansas University in addition to leading the state’s scholastic journalism organization, said the Oskaloosa case suggested that press freedom was under attack at high schools.

Sometimes the censorship is overt, he said. But at other times it’s subtle, and the result of decisions by educators not familiar with Kansas press law.

“In a lot of cases, they just don’t know they’re censoring,” Hudnall said. “If you don’t have a kid willing to step up, it continues.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., said the number of requests for assistance from the center had increased 150 percent in the past decade.

“Censorship of high school publications at schools all around the country is a tremendous problem,” he said.

Goodman said the stories most frequently censored were about substantive issues that school leaders should be encouraging students to explore.

“It’s sad to say we’ve come to the point that most school administrators, not all by any means, but most are more concerned with good public relations than they are with educating young people about the values of a democratic society,” he said. “That’s often reflected in their actions of censoring student media.”

John Mohn of Lawrence taught high school journalism for 34 years, most recently at Washburn Rural High School. He also helped write the pivotal 1992 law on scholastic press in Kansas.

Democracy is the loser when administrators compromise the freedom of students to write what they believe to be true, he said.

“If they don’t have freedom, we’re teaching them that bullying is how you get your way, that the power structure is a bully structure,” Mohn said. “The issue is: Don’t offend the bullies who are in power.”

Hanson said the ordeal had been a good learning experience. An unintended consequence of the dispute about her story was to increase her skepticism of people in positions of influence, she said.

“The best lesson I learned is to question authority,” she said. “Just because somebody has power doesn’t mean they use it wisely.”