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Stevenson HS student paper held from publication
By Mick Zawislak | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 11/21/2009 12:02 AM

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Stevenson High School withheld Friday's scheduled distribution of its award-winning newspaper, Statesman, in what school officials said was a matter of journalistic principle not censorship.

School officials declined to comment on specific content, but said a story was held because it featured "anonymous sources discussing alleged illegal activity that was not fit for print."

The story had to do with National Honor Society students and freshman mentors admitting to drinking and smoking. Stories about shoplifting and teen pregnancy also were deemed inappropriate, according to Evan Ribot, managing editor, and the entire issue was scrapped.

"Today's issue was censored," Ribot said.

A statement issued Friday by spokesman Jim Conrey and attributed to the school, said the implication that publication was delayed because the newspaper contained articles harmful to Stevenson's reputation was false.

Student editors were given the option to hold the story for a future issue to do more thorough reporting, and redesigning the layout to meet a printing deadline, according to the school.

"The students' preference, however, was to leave the front cover bare except for a brief note explaining that an article intended for the space was not allowed to run as written," the school's statement read.

Ribot said the staff was told Wednesday it could run the stories if the "appropriate revisions" were made, but chose not to go that route. A meeting is scheduled with the administration for Monday morning.

"We have to discuss our options ... I certainly don't want to water down the stories," Ribot said.

It's the latest dispute in the last year between students and administrators over Statesman reporting. A January story about teen sex led to more administration oversight because of what officials said were reporting problems. Teacher Barbara Thill left her post as newspaper adviser at the end of last school year.

Ribot said there are inconsistencies in the school's statement. He said stories with anonymous sources have appeared before, and believed the decision to pull the edition was made by administrators, not newspaper advisors.

"This isn't about us trying to get back at our administration," he said. "This is about censorship and us taking a stand against censorship."

Frank LoMante, executive director of the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center, said he talked to Statesman staff members about legal options Thursday, but hadn't spoken with them as of Friday. He said the Law Center encourages students to work out differences with administrators before calling in attorneys.

"We tell them to try and negotiate a peaceful resolution at the school level if possible," LoMante said. "That's always the best way and serves as a learning experience for the students."

Stevenson described the release as its official statement on the issue and said there would be no further comment from administrators or board members.

Randy Swikle, Illinois director of the Journalism Education Association, said in an e-mail he feared Stevenson "is gaining a reputation of education by clout rather than by collaboration."

He questioned why administrators or school board members refused to address the subject.

"I implore them not to give the impression they are afraid to face questions that can hold them accountable," Swikle said.

In the statement, the school cited two issues with the Statesman's content:

•Use of anonymous sources in stories is not encouraged because there is no guarantee they are truthful.

•Stevenson is legally bound to act in place of a parent, and has an obligation to report illegal student activity to their parents or possibly legal authorities.

Accuracy, truthfulness of sources and balanced presentation were standards not being met to the satisfaction of journalism teachers and Joseph Flanagan, director of communication arts, according to the school.

"The Statesman will be published once its content meets the curriculum standards laid out by the journalism teachers at the beginning of the school year," Flanagan said in the statement.

The school maintained what happened is no different from what happens in professional newsrooms every day.

"Stories are withheld from public view until editors are satisfied that proper levels of reporting have been done," the school said. "The journalism teachers are simply following long-standing practices of the journalism profession."

The Statesman is renowned among student publications, having won several state and national awards for editorial writing and in-depth reporting.

LoMante said if the issue can't be worked out, his organization can refer local lawyers who will volunteer their time on the students' behalf.