Define "Inappropriate"

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From the time of the American revolutionaries to modern day, from the time of printed newspapers to an era of online media, and from a time of chaos and suspicion to times of mutual acceptance and peace, the freedom of the press has always been questioned, suspected, and even vilified. In today’s society, most people would agree that there are certain limits to this freedom, namely that the writer should not lie, disclose personal matters that do not affect the audience, or threaten the safety of a particular individual or a group. Yet, the rigid black lines that once defined these limits are now fading into shades of gray—it is nearly impossible to distinguish between what is inappropriate for the audience and what may in fact be a necessary learning curve. In particular, student journalists are encouraged to express different opinions, yet are cautioned not to cover controversial topics. Some may say that teachers have a right to control what a student publication may or may not print, and in certain cases, that might very well be true. In fact, many students themselves believe that school authorities should have a say in what is being printed in their newspapers as only 40% of students surveyed in 2006 believed that students should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities (Source G). Yet, in the case of the Supreme Court decision of the 1988, the Supreme Court clearly erred in its decision: its argument that the student newspapers’ articles were “inconsistent with (the school’s) basic educational mission” contained gaping fallacies (Source A). That the Supreme Court decision is actually inconsistent with the school’s basic educational mission can be seen by the fact that not only did censoring these articles actually go against this school’s—any school’s—basic educational mission of making students aware of real-life situations, but also the deleted articles did not disrupt class work or invade the rights of others.

The Supreme Court’s claims—that the educators’ actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns” and that they had the right to censor the newspaper if it deviated from the educational curriculum—are clearly fallible, seen by the fact that the censored articles neither disrupted class nor infringed on anyone’s privacy (Source A). As the Colorado Student Free Expression Law states, as long as the articles written do not include obscene, libelous, or potentially dangerous information, “no expression...shall be subject to prior restraint.” Seeing that “obscene” is the only category in which the pregnancy and divorce articles would have fallen under, one must question: what does it mean to be obscene? Indecent, immoral, crude, profane, foul—none of these words truly describe the purpose of these two articles, articles that the journalists wrote only trying to alert the student body to very real and threatening situations that occurred in their own school. The reason that so many choose to send their children to school, rather than have them be home schooled, is based on teaching them how to socially interact with others and undergo experiences that are available only when they actually attend school. Pregnancy, rape, sex, and violence—in today’s society, teachers recoil from mentioning these contentious issues. Yet, leaving a child unprepared for the world, unaware of what repugnant characters or situations he or she will face simply because such topics are deemed “inappropriate”—that is truly what is inconsistent with the school’s basic educational mission In other words, by glossing over or completely banning discussion on these subjects, teachers fail to realize that in the real world, students will directly encounter such incidences and must have learned how to effectively deal with them. Therefore, spreading the message on subjects that are heavily embedded in real life should be encouraged, rather than shunned. What it ultimately comes down to is that the student journalists valued exposing the truth over caution because they sought to elicit a reaction from the student body; the principal and Supreme Court valued caution over uncovering the truth precisely because they feared the same reaction that would occur.

Naysayers may claim that the articles consisted of inappropriate viewpoints, diverged sharply from the school’s educational mission and skills that the students learned in their Journalism II class, and that the newspaper was not a public forum for students to vent their opinions. With that perspective, it is apparently obvious then that the principal had every right to delete these objectionable articles. It must be conceded that students may not print absolutely anything that they feel needs attention; they must first treat the issue with caution and respect, and second, they must be absolutely certain that writing about the issue will change the school for the better. Having admitted that, it seems decidedly ironic that many complain about students using the newspaper to articulate their opinions. In fact, the Colorado Student Free Expression Law clearly states, “if a publication written substantially by students is made generally available throughout a public school, it shall be a public forum for students of such schools.” No matter where the paper originated, whether it be from a journalism class or an idea started by bored students in the summer, laws such as the Colorado Student Free Expression Law show that as long as the newspaper is made available to all, the students have every right to voice their opinions. Besides, even if that were not so, the point of a student publication is generally to encourage the students to eloquently express both mundane and tendentious articles, unless, as the opposing justices in the Supreme Court decision in Section 6 of the Introduction mock “the purpose...is to teach...that the press ought never to report bad news, express unpopular views, or print a thought that might upset its sponsors.” This school’s—any school’s—educational purpose is to help students share controversial viewpoints with their classmates through softening their words or perhaps encouraging the student journalist to take a different angle—not to ban all traces of the article entirely! As many of us today find it ludicrous that some schools forbid reading books such as The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, or Anne Frank, for “sexually inappropriate” scenes, it seems similarly absurd to forbid printing articles for their “inappropriate” content. Hence, one can reasonably conclude that these educators, while deserving of praise for their concern of the student’s well-being, fail to stimulate and encourage children’s mental awareness of the world in a positive manner, thus hindering, rather than helping them.

The student journalists at Hazelwood East High School were clearly driven, throughout their ordeal, by determination: determination to exercise their right of free speech, determination to communicate what they felt extremely pertinent to the school’s students, and determination to keep the school newspaper running after the Supreme Court ruled against them. While the newspaper may now be stripped of authority, these students learned a vital lesson, a lesson that will apply for the rest of their lives. In reporting, or even in simply communicating one’s opinions to another person, the danger of being scorned, rejected, or even openly called a fraud, is present. Whether or not one’s opinions actually deserve such repudiation is not what matters—it is the ability, the drive, to continue spreading those opinions to educate and persuade the public into what one believes is a better course of action. Ultimately, I strongly believe that the Supreme Court erred in its decision to support the principal and administration; yet, I rejoice in the fact that many, including fellow Supreme Court justices, find this decision unjust. Through these persistent cries for justice across the nation, I hope that inspired and motivated student journalists will continue spreading their thoughts and one day, may go so far as to overturn this decision itself.





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