If you don't have the luxury of watching student media all day, you might be operating under the misapprehension that bad journalism is what gets a student newspaper shut down. In fact, the opposite is true: most student reporters earn enemies in their administration by asking hard questions about important issues and telling the truth of what happened. In America's schools, retaliatory censorship for good journalism is on the menu as frequently as cafeteria pizza.
And yet, even by that standard, what Principal Leon Lundie is attempting to do at Aurora, Colorado's Overland High School is a travesty.
Two editors for Overland's student paper, The Scout, were covering the death of a student at the school. Sophomore Leibert Phillip died January 1 due to a pulmonary embolism. Phillip had broken his ankle during a wrestling match and a blood clot had traveled to his lungs.
(I hope Princpal Lundie doesn't try to shut down The Huffington Post because I said that. Arianna, if he calls you into his office, let me know, I'll go with you.)
One of the editors, Lori Schafer, wrote the story. It consists of remembrances of the student from a former teacher and the boy's mother. One line at the end of the story records the cause of death as stated by the mother. Another editor, Jaclyn Gutierrez, was present for the interview.
The censorship started March 8, when students, complying with Principal Leon Lundie's new "prior review" policy, showed Principal Lundie their news-page story about an Overland student who died after sustaining an injury at a wrestling meet. Principal Lundie said the student reporters had incorrectly listed the student's cause of death.
On March 10, students brought Principal Lundie a copy of the death certificate, confirming that the cause of death was correctly stated in the original article. Principal Lundie then complained that the article lacked "balance."
On March 11, Principal Lundie removed teacher Laura Sudik as newspaper adviser and informed students that, after this current issue had gone to press, the newspaper class would turn into a journalism class and stop publication.
That's right; Principal Lundie felt the article lacked balance. So strongly that, after this last issue goes to press, he's never letting the students publish another newspaper. (Supposedly there's a senior issue that'll be printed with no news, just senior anecdotes, but I suppose we'll have to wait and see if Principal Lundie feels that someone's positive memories of band camp lack balance.)
Let's be clear: the piece consists of the words of a teacher who misses her student, a mother who misses her son, and the State of Colorado's official cause of death.
What part does Principal Lundie want the reporters to balance? Contradicting any of the statements in the memorial piece would produce results that range from merely incorrect to utterly repulsive.
Is she supposed to go door-to-door hunting for people who don't miss Leibert, to balance the statements of people who do?
Is she supposed to grill the coroner who did the autopsy in the style of Columbo to reveal that the actual cause of death was something else? ("Excuse me, Mr. Coroner, I won't take up much of your time, I'm just confused about something on the death certificate.")
What, precisely, does Principal Lundie have in mind? And yet, because the students responded to his assertion that the article was incorrect with a government record demonstrating their accuracy, Principal Lundie retaliated like a schoolyard bully, removing their adviser and shutting down their newspaper.
Perhaps the saddest part of this affair is that Colorado has a state law specifically designed to protect the free expression rights of student journalists. The state legislature took action decades ago to prevent student newspapers from being the victims of administrators more concerned about their own image than the civil rights of their students.
And yet, the only reaction that seems to have triggered in Overland High School is to permit the last edition of the newspaper to go to print before shutting the program down permanently, as if somehow retaliatory censorship was less retaliatory if you let them print one last newspaper.
You don't avoid a civil rights violation by letting civil rights exist before you take them away. The idea that Principal Lundie's shutting down of the newspaper doesn't offend civil rights if he waits until after the current issue is like saying Martin Luther King wouldn't have had his civil rights violated if they had let him finish his lunch before arresting him for his lunch counter sit-in.
The student editors are talking with attorneys like, well, me, and Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado. It is my hope that Overland High School will start obeying state law out of the goodness of its heart. If it doesn't, I guess we'll have to explore other options.
But here's a free lesson for Principal Lundie: sometimes reality lacks balance. Sometimes things, like the death of this student, are just bad. Sometimes people, like you, are just wrong.