Controversial Stevenson High student newspaper released

  • Stevenson High School's newspaper the Statesman was published and delivered to students Wednesday.

    Stevenson High School's newspaper the Statesman was published and delivered to students Wednesday. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Published: 11/25/2009 10:42 AM | Updated: 11/25/2009 3:50 PM

As a controversial edition of Stevenson High School's student newspaper was released on campus Wednesday, student-press advocates criticized the administration's decision to force the young journalists to publish the issue.

One questioned whether the school has the legal right to force publication of stories it may not own. Another said forcing students to put bylines on articles against their wills is a First Amendment violation.

"You just can't force people to sign their names to work they don't believe is theirs," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center. "And the students don't believe it's theirs."

Roughly 3,500 copies of the November issue of the Statesman were released Wednesday, one day after officials at the Lincolnshire school ordered students to complete the newspaper.

The Statesman staffers had proposed withholding their bylines from the issue - a tactic called a byline strike in professional journalism - but they were forced to include them as usual, Editor Pam Selman said.

Because the copies arrived after the school day began, the newspapers were made available in bins throughout school and were not distributed by hand at the start of the day by Statesman staffers, which is the traditional distribution method, Statesman Managing Editor Evan Ribot said.

There were no protests or problems regarding the issue once it hit the bins, Ribot said.

The issue's release was delayed last week after administrators demanded a story be held. In a news release, the school said the article was pulled because it featured anonymous sources discussing alleged illegal activity, and it was not fit for print.

Other stories also were targeted, students said.

In all, two stories initially planned for the November issue were not included in the edition released Wednesday, school spokesman Jim Conrey said.

That discrepancy troubles LoMonte.

"The school has lied to the public," he said. "We're into the kind of misconduct that the school board needs to investigate."

Conrey explained the discrepancy Wednesday by saying he was only aware of one article being pulled when the news release was distributed. He said he didn't learn of the other until afterward.

High school administrators preventing certain stories from being published is common in the United States, LoMonte said, and the Supreme Court has ruled schools have the right to take such action.

Forcing students to print a newspaper, however, is not common, LoMonte said. Taking such action worsens an already volatile situation, he said.

"At this point, we're not talking about education - we're talking about power and P.R.," said LoMonte, whose organization has helped the students find an attorney. "It's a complete power trip. It's the school's way of showing the kids who's boss."

Conrey insisted the students have an educational obligation to publish their work.

"The Statesman is part of a course. It's not an extracurricular activity," he said. "This is not a power trip. This is simply making sure course work gets done."

Joining LoMonte in supporting the students is Randy Swikle, the director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, a group that assists journalism instructors to promote high standards in the media.

Swikle questioned whether the school legally can order students to publish the stories contained in the November issue. The school, he believes, didn't own the articles before they were published.

"This is not a work-for-hire situation. The students own their stories," Swikle said. "It seems to me there's a violation of the implied copyright there."

Forcing the November issue to be published demoralizes students and teachers "instead of creating an environment of trust, collaboration and openness," Swikle added.

He urged administrators to sit down with students and local reporters and talk about the journalistic issues at play, such as the use of anonymous sources.

Conrey said officials would have to learn more about his proposal before commenting on it.