Editor’s note: This editorial was published in The Daily Dispatch (Henderson, N.C.) on May 5, 2010. The editorial follows up on the saga of JEA mentor Kay Phillips (NC) and her mentoring work at Southern Vance High School. The Mentoring Committee applaudes the efforts of Vance County school board member Ruth Hartness and the school board to support student press rights. Thanks, too, to The Daily Dispatch for bringing this situation to the community’s attention.

No excuse for censorship of school papers

Since at least the 1970s, those seeking to protect students’ First Amendment rights have struggled with censorship at Vance County school newspapers.

Forty years ago, the student newspaper at a Vance County high school was shut down because of three student articles, according to the Freedom
Forum’s “Death By Cheeseburger,” a book detailing high school journalism censorship. The book was named after an article that appeared in the local student newspaper.

The article was a satirical tale of the death of the writer after eating a school cafeteria cheeseburger. “The newspaper was closed, the adviser let go and a novice hired to teach English and journalism – without the student paper,” the book states.

That was four decades ago, but a similar set of circumstances has renewed efforts to keep student newspapers operating without censorship in Vance County schools.

According to the Southern Interscholastic Press Association at the University of South Carolina, student journalists at both Northern and
Southern Vance experienced “prior review, prior restraint and censorship.”

School board member Ruth Hartness (left) received Freedom of the Press Award from the Southern Interscholastic Press Association at their convention in March. Working with the school board, Hartness helped JEA mentor Kay Phillips (on right in photo) promote student press rights. (Photo by Martha Rothwell)

After the election of Barack Obama, students at Southern Vance decided to feature the election on the front page of their school newsletter. School administrators, after reviewing the newsletter prior to distribution, told the journalism students not to distribute it without more school-related information on the front page. The newsletter was changed at the request of the administrators.

A student-produced article critical of the restroom facilities at the school was also taken out of a newsletter at the demand of school administrators. That Christmas 2008 newsletter was the last one distributed at the school. The school’s Journalism Education Association mentor, Dr. Kay Phillips, was told in early 2009 that her services were no longer needed at the school – for no legitimate reason, according to Phillips.

It’s a shame that 40 years after censorship in Vance County schools became the catalyst for a book, students are still facing the same battles.

The Journalism Education Association denounces the practice of administrative prior review as serving no legitimate educational purpose. We agree. Prior review of student publications only leads to censorship by school administrators or self-censorship by students.

After learning what had happened with the student newsletter and Phillips, school board member Ruth Hartness decided to do something about it.

SIPA recently awarded Hartness for her efforts to ensure the students’ First Amendment rights weren’t being violated. Hartness helped spearhead an effort by the school board to ensure the students’ freedom from further censorship. With Hartness’ help, Phillips was eventually reinstated at Southern Vance.

But the student newsletter has yet to be produced again. Phillips has found little cooperation from teachers and administrators in her efforts to re-establish the student-produced publication.

Without the newsletter, students are losing a valuable educational experience and having their First Amendment rights trampled on. School administrators responsible for this should be ashamed.

Students should have the opportunity to produce a newspaper without fear that stories will be censored. School administrators should be working to re-establish the newsletter at Southern Vance – without prior review and censorship. Unfortunately, it seems the opposite is happening.

Our children and our schools deserve better.