Censored: The new age of high school journalism


"In February, a sophomore at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School in northeast Indiana wrote a column in the student newspaper urging people to be nice to each other, regardless of their sexual orientation.

After the column appeared, the East Allen County School System insisted that all future issues of the paper be cleared by the principal and attempted to fire the newspaper’s adviser, Amy Sorrell. The school system did not feel that any discussion of sexual orientation in the student newspaper was appropriate.

The system eventually reached a settlement with Sorrell that would have enabled her to teach within the school system, but she left when she found another job at a private school in the area. The sophomore who wrote the column has given up journalism, and the school itself likely will not have a student newspaper this year.

At about the same time at Westfield High School, student journalist John Bender wrote a series of columns for his school’s student newspaper. He aimed for a humorous tone. The school’s newspaper adviser, Bender says, told him that she did not appreciate sarcasm. This year, the school has denied him permission to enroll in the newspaper class, citing, according to Bender, his “inability to create a working relationship with the teacher” as its reason for barring him from the classroom.

At this time last year, Bender thought he wanted to be a journalist. Now he’s not sure.

Two years ago, high school student journalists in Columbus and Noblesville produced well-reported packages on the dangers of oral sex. The school systems in both places tried to suppress the stories.

The year before that, a student journalist at Franklin Central High School wrote a short, straight news story about a fellow student being arrested on murder charges. No one disputed the accuracy of the story, but the school system tried to discipline the newspaper advisor anyway. When an Indianapolis TV newscast sent a reporter over to do a story on the advisor, the school system’s press person ordered the TV reporter off school grounds and then started screaming at her.

The school system eventually reached a settlement with the advisor, who left the school system.

In none of these incidents did the school system disagree with the accuracy of the work.

In all of these cases, the school systems just wanted to shut down the discussion.

Author’s disclosure

At this point, in a normal news story, I would disclose my conflicts of interest and assure everyone that they make no difference. But that is impossible here.

My surface conflicts are many. As the then-president of the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I wrote an op-ed column supporting Amy Sorrell and her students at Woodlan that appeared in newspapers across the state and country. I gave interviews and appeared on talk radio defending them. I did the same with the students in Noblesville and Columbus and with the newspaper advisor at Franklin Central.

The real conflict of interest, though, is more profound.

As the director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, I am a teacher of young journalists. Telling them that the way to honor their profession is to sit down and shut up strikes me as misguided at best and, at worst, just plain wrong.

In this story, I will do what I teach my students to do. I will strive to be fair to all sources.

My first duty here, though, is to you, the reader. For me to be fair to you, you need to know where I stand, so you can take that into account.


Disputes such as the ones at Woodlan and Franklin Central happen with some frequency.

“We get about a dozen calls, complaints or inquiries every year involving censorship in some way,” said Diana Hadley, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, which includes 130 Indiana high schools as members.

Many of the disputes get handled through quiet negotiation and go away without making noise.

A few, though, erupt.

The Woodlan story, for example, made national news. In Indiana, most newspapers ran at least one story on the controversy and many ran several stories.

Beth King, the communications manager for the Society of Professional Journalists, said the story took off for a couple of reasons. The first is that a lot of journalism groups publicized it and a lot of newspapers editorialized in favor of Sorrel and her students.

The other reason is that the school system’s administrators misread the community.

“People are a lot more open and tolerant than some might think. Even if they disagree with something, they still don’t want to see it censored,” King said.

That attention a Woodlan-like situation produces, though, can have an impact.

“When you get a few cases where teachers lose jobs or get disciplined — or students get in trouble — then self-censorship can start to occur,” Hadley said.

That is partly what happened at Westfield High School, John Bender said.

Bender, now a senior, wrote for the school newspaper last year. The starting cornerback on the school football team and a strong student, he said he hopes to attend Northwestern University, the University of California at Berkeley or the University of Iowa and eventually make a living as a writer.

“I’d hoped to work as a journalist, but now that I have seen what can go on, I don’t know if that’s for me,” he said.

What went on, Bender said, is that he got removed from the newspaper staff for reasons he does not understand. He was an opinion editor. His writing generally filled a page of the student newspaper.

He wrote columns about cliques at school and gay marriage that, in particular, seemed to bother his newspaper adviser, Nikki Davis. (Citing student privacy concerns, Davis declined to be interviewed; to see Bender’s column on cliques at school, see nuvo.net.)

“When the trouble started with that other teacher over gay marriage [Sorrell at Woodlan], then things really started to get out of hand,” Bender said.

Bender said that when he wanted to sign up for the newspaper class this year, school officials told him that he couldn’t.

“Mrs. Davis told me that there was no student support for my writing,” Bender said. “But there’s a Facebook page devoted to it where nearly a fourth of the student body has signed up. Students are very upset about this.”

More liberating?

Amy Sorrell said that sounds familiar.

After she arrived at a settlement with East Allen County Schools last spring, she took a job with Keystone School, a small private school of 250 students in Ft. Wayne. She left the school system, she said, in part because she didn’t think that the East Allen County School System would let student journalists write freely.

So far, she has found working at a private school to be liberating.

“There is talk of putting a constitutional thread into the curriculum here, so that the students are taught about the Constitution all the way through their classes,” she said.

Sorrell also occasionally speaks at First Amendment or free press events.

“Not only does the school let me go, but I have administrators asking me if they can go along to show support,” she said.

Sorrell serves as Keystone’s yearbook adviser, but she has plans to build on that.

“I got hired as an English teacher and we didn’t have time to get a newspaper started, but we’re working on that and hope to have one up in January at the start of second semester. People at the school are very excited about having a newspaper,” she said.

Woodlan, her old school, has gone in the opposite direction.

Most of the newspaper staff from last year quit. A couple of Woodlan student journalists travel to a nearby school in the middle of the day to study journalism and work on a student newspaper.

This year, the student newspaper at Woodlan will be filled with essays assigned in English class. Teachers will choose what they consider the best stories for the paper.

“I’m really not sure exactly what the kids will be writing about or what the English teachers have in mind,” said Jan MacLean, deputy superintendent of East Allen County Schools.

Cortney Carpenter, last year’s editor, wants no part of this new version of the paper.

“It really wouldn’t be a paper anymore,” Carpenter told a Ft. Wayne newspaper.

Indiana High School Press Association Executive Director Hadley said that Sorrell’s experience at Woodlan and Keystone is not unusual. In fact, it may be part of a trend.

“It used to be that we told teachers to stay away from private schools because private schools would limit student expression. Now, though, in some cases, we’re seeing the opposite happen. A lot of public schools now are limiting or cracking down on student expression and a lot of the private schools are loosening up and allowing more student expression,” Hadley said.

Many public school administrators believe they have a blanket right to control student expression.

They have seized on language in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemeir Supreme Court decision of nearly 20 years ago. That language says that school principals and superintendents can serve, in effect, as the publishers of high schools’ student newspapers.

Hazelwood also says, though, that administrators must have educationally sound reasons for censoring student newspapers. In addition, the decision also suggests that when superintendents and principals assume the powers of publishers, they also assume the responsibilities and liabilities, meaning that they personally can be held legally responsible for what appears in the student newspaper.

Litigation that might clear up Hazelwood could take years.

Hadley and the IHSPA think they might have a quicker solution. They have been working to get journalism standards added to the core curriculum for Indiana schools.

If adopted, those standards would emphasize how journalism should be practiced. They would include best practices and ethical standards.

Hadley said she thinks that having the standards in place could make disputes such as the ones at Woodlan easier to resolve.

“If we had standards in place,” she said, “then administrators, advisers, students and parents all would be operating with the same set of understandings. We would not be arguing about what journalistic standards are. Instead, we would be discussing if those standards are being applied appropriately.”

The key, she said, is educating people about scholastic journalism.

“A lot of people don’t understand what a student press is or what it’s supposed to do. If we want students to learn how to be ethical journalists, we need to show them what that is and give them the chance to develop.”

Hadley and the IHSPA have been working Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed’s office for the past three years. Hadley said she hopes the state will adopt the standards soon.

“I have lost track of how many revisions we have been through, but I have to believe that we are close,” she said.

In the meantime, another school year has started.

Amy Sorrell said that she’s excited to be at her new school, but that she can’t help thinking about last year’s experiences. She said there is not much she would do differently.

“It was stressful, but I got to speak out about the First Amendment and students’ First Amendment rights. Because of that, a lot of attention got focused on the issue of a student free press. And the public support was fantastic,” she said.

As an example, Sorrell pointed to the public hearing that the school system planned to have regarding her firing. It got cancelled when East Allen County Schools settled with her.

“If I had had to go through with that hearing, we would have had so many parents and students there. The baseball team had a doubleheader scheduled that day and there were parents organizing shuttles so that kids could make it to the hearing and still play. That’s how upset people were,” Sorrell said.

“It’s sad that the school system didn’t seem to learn anything from that.”


Confessions of two censored high school writers:

Lesson learned

by John Krull

When I was in high school more than 30 years ago, I wrote a pretty dreadful sports column.

Even though it covered the entire back page of the student newspaper, almost no one read it. Not my friends. Not even my family.

That changed one week.

The football team had a game coming up. It wasn’t an important game — in large part because the football team was struggling. The other school’s team was better.

Until then, I had followed a boosterish line when writing about the school’s sports teams and always predicted victory for the home squad. This time, though, I wrote what I truly thought and predicted that our team would lose, 21-14.

That week, it seemed that everyone read my column.

When I walked through the halls, I saw students huddled at their lockers, reading and rereading my column. Friends and other classmates accosted me in the cafeteria, at my locker and in the restroom. Most said, with some heat, that I lacked school spirit. A few said that my column gave them a sense of relief.

On game night, an assistant coach waved my column around in the locker room and yelled at the football team, “Krull doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground! Go show him that!”

The head football coach asked to meet with me. He told me I was a disappointment to him, to the school, to my family and, I think, to the entire human race.

A guidance counselor told me pretty much the same thing that the head coach did.

I was 17 and not used to that kind of attention.

The next week in the column, I made a bad joke about the football coaches’ lack of perspective. The sports editor and newspaper advisor axed the joke, as they should have.

I got suspended from the newsroom for a month.

Curiously, though, the paper continued to run my column while I was on suspension. At the end of the year, the school gave me an award for being the outstanding newspaper staff member, making me — I’m pretty sure — the only person in the school’s history to be both suspended and so honored in the same year.

Normally, I have a hard time recalling what I thought or learned when I was a teenager.

The lessons of this experienc"


Recommended for you