Pubdate: Mon, 06 Apr 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Moriah Balingit


Censorship Case Involving VA. School Paper Illustrates Changes

It's called "dabbing," and it involves smoking a distilled version of 
marijuana's active ingredient off of a nail, delivering a potent high.

When Fauquier High School senior Sara Rose Martin heard that her 
peers were experimenting with the technique, she decided to pen a 
story about it for the student newspaper, the Falconer, of which she 
is co-editor in chief.

"I was just interested in exactly what it was and exactly what the 
effects of it were," she said. "I wanted my peers to know what they 
were doing."

Principal Clarence Burton III deemed the article too mature for the 
Falconer's teen readership and yanked it from publication in March. 
In a letter to Martin, he wrote that he was concerned that students 
would "be exposed to a new and dangerous drug without adult guidance."

Martin brought news of the censorship to Fauquier Now, an online-only 
news outlet. Editor Lawrence "Lou" Emerson decided to run the article 
and posted it to the Internet on March 23, giving the student's piece 
a much broader audience than her 1,200student high school in 
Warrenton, Va. Within the first 10 days, her story had 11,400 unique visitors.

The turn of events underscores the dilemma school administrators face 
while exercising control over student media in the age of the 
Internet. And it highlights the tension that can arise when school 
officials try to balance the concerns of parents and those of student 
journalists who believe they have important stories to tell.

School administrators are allowed to preview student work and can 
censor school-sponsored student publications in many cases, following 
the U.S. Supreme Court's Hazelwood decision in 1988.

Marie Miller, an English teacher who has taught journalism classes 
and advised the newspaper for a decade, said the Falconer normally 
runs stories one would expect of a high school newspaper - recent 
coverage has included the location of this year's prom, the 
installation of a new fence around the school's courtyard and a 
debate about the Pledge of Allegiance.

But the students do wade into headier topics, and when they are 
preparing to run a controversial piece, Miller typically gives the 
principal a head's up. Burton approved two articles this school year 
on sensitive topics, including one on Molly, an increasingly popular 
club drug that is a form of the drug ecstasy, and another on 
transgender students.

But the principal pushed back when he read Martin's story.

"Unlike a drug safety education unit taught in a health class by a 
trained professional, this article does not come with that trained 
instructor," Burton wrote in a letter to Martin.

David Jeck, Fauquier County's schools superintendent, backed the 
principal's decision after the students appealed.

"I just felt like, in the end of the day, if there's one student in 
that school who is encouraged to use the drug . . . I would have to 
live with that, and that's not something I want to live with," Jeck said.

Frank Lo Monte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, 
said that reasoning - equating writing about a behavior with 
encouraging it-would preclude students from covering a whole range of 
topics relevant to the high school population, including drunken 
driving and sexually transmitted diseases.

"There's obviously a difference between exposing people to 
information and exposing them to a drug," he said. "They didn't 
enclose drugs in the publication."

Martin's article includes frank descriptions of the drug from several 
unnamed students - including how it is used. Some described a rush of 
euphoria and others said they vomited and hurt themselves, suffering 
injuries "from cracked skulls to cracked teeth," she wrote.

"I don't think my article makes it sound good," she said. And she 
estimates that a sizable portion of the student body already knows 
about dabbing.

But, as it turns out, many school administrators had never heard of 
dabbing. Miller learned about it from Martin's reporting. Jeck, too, 
said he learned about it from the very article he decided to prohibit 
from the school newspaper.

Jeck acknowledged that there was a certain futility in censoring an 
article that was ultimately published elsewhere. But he still said 
that the Web- and the extraordinary amount of bad information 
students have access to because of it - does not mean administrators 
should stop oversight of student publications.

"We know very well that the kids have access to a thousand times more 
information than they would in the Falconer newspaper," he said. 
"That doesn't mean we have to be part of that."

Lo Monte sees a missed opportunity.

"It would be so much better to cultivate good news-consumption habits 
by encouraging reading the newspaper rather than driving eyeballs 
elsewhere," he said, especially when elsewhere means Facebook, 
Twitter or blogs, where the content might not be accountable to the 
same standards. "There's no stopping people from becoming informed, 
so why not keep the conversation inside the tent, where it can be 
monitored and supervised?"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom