Censorship In Our Peer Newspapers

Several peer student-run publication logos, in the order by which they are mentioned below

U-High Midway, Parker Weekly, St. Ignatius Spirit

Several peer student-run publication logos, in the order by which they are mentioned below

By Peter Jones, Latin School of Chicago

This past February 19, staff of The Forum visited the UC Laboratory High School to meet with editors of their student-run publication, The Midway. The conversation was not only informative but enlightening on the purpose of independent school newspapers in Chicago. 

As it turns out, uncensored school newspapers are surprisingly rare in this city; Lab and Latin are two of the only independent schools central to Chicago whose administrations don’t approve articles before they hit the press. The fact that high school newspapers are declining only adds to the severity of this situation: just last Tuesday, WBEZ commented that “like mainstream newspapers, high school publications are struggling.” 

Chicago’s parochial and independent schools have a unique role in the discourse of Chicago students at large. Without student newspapers to voice and interpret that role, it becomes fragmented and falls apart. Two uncensored newspapers can not, on their own, effectively nor completely address the controversies that arise while attending a private school in a city characterized by inequity.

There is an argument, nonetheless, to censor teenagers, usually justified by citing the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In the case, a Missouri high school’s administrators won the right to restrict student expression for “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” But legal justification does not equate to moral justification, and a 30-year-old ruling does nothing to change the ethical obligation of schools to allow students the freedom to publicly explore issues within their community. 

Consider The Midway. As Forum staff recently learned, the newspaper – which has received an extraordinary number of awards and accolades – reported last January on a controversial open letter from the Black Students’ Association to the Lab community. Their loyalty to the truth was recognized city-wide, one reporter from ABC Channel 7 commenting under the article hoping to include the students’ work in ABC’s Martin Luther King Day program. As co-Editor-in-Chief Abigail Slimmon noted, The Midway’s independence from the Lab administration has been key to their integrity and success: “Being an independent, student-run publication gives us the freedom to publish the news that we feel is appropriate for our readership,” she said. “When something is happening in school, we report on what is actually going on, not just what would make our school look good.” 

Similarly, The Forum has offered students an open space for expression since its 1966 debut. Latin’s executives have never requested a system of approval, and, consequently, they have never been provided one. Dean of upperclassmen Mr. Edwards spoke to that freedom, expressing that although independent schools’ individual social climates should be considered, “respectful stories substantiated by facts and evidence are certainly appropriate to be published in student-run newspapers.”

Unfortunately, the uplifting accounts of first-amendment respect in independent schools pretty much end there. Many of Latin’s peer schools continue to suppress student deliberation in their newspapers, most notably Francis W. Parker and St. Ignatius College Prep. 

Parker’s website offers a progressive mission statement in big grey letters: to educate students to “think and act with empathy, courage, and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders…” This approach, it seems, might not extend to their student-run paper, The Weekly (which has a private domain and thus can’t be hyperlinked). 

In the spring of 2019, editors of The Weekly publicly criticized their school for alleged passivity on a community-related issue. Since then, according to Editor-in-Chief Avani Kalra, the newspaper has been subjected to a relentless approval process. In a longer statement, Kalra voiced her opposition to her school’s censorship.

“In my year-and-a-half as Editor-in-Chief of The Weekly, our free speech has been restricted significantly. Each issue is read cover to cover by our Head of Upper School, and we are not allowed to distribute before school breaks or weekends. When our Head of Upper School has a problem with the paper, content-related or otherwise, we are given relatively little opportunity to advocate for ourselves. At a school that aspires to function as an ‘embryonic democracy,’ the absence of both a free press and an open dialogue between students and administrators is concerning,” she said. 

Kalra also explained that “censorship of The Weekly rarely comes down on ‘taboo topics,”’ rather it “most often restricts our ability to critique administration, school culture, or curriculum.”

The Forum contacted Parker administration on several occasions for a statement regarding their alleged censorship. The request was acknowledged and apparently passed on to the principal and head of school, but never received a reply. 

Meanwhile, the student-run paper at St. Ignatius, one of the largest private schools in the city, faces a similar situation. Ignatius differs from Lab, Parker, and Latin in that they maintain a religious affiliation, but their academic prominence unites them with Chicago independent schools as a whole. 

Ignatius’ student-run publication, The Spirit, reports on a variety of controversial topics but is not permitted to address in-school disputes. Editor-in-Chief Catherine Molloy said, “articles questioning the dress code, lanyards, or other controversies within the school are almost always vetoed. It’s frustrating, because one of Ignatius’s Grad at Grad values is ‘intellectually competent,’ and it feels as though they squander some very informed pieces despite this value [being] at the core of student life.”

The St. Ignatius administration was contacted twice for comment and did not respond.

This disparity in censorship between The Forum and its peers opens up a larger conversation about the trust school officials place in their students. The notion that teenagers, when left to their own devices, would promote a newspaper culture of libel and profanity is unfounded and disparaging. If a school is progressive, and effectively conveys those beliefs to its students, then what does its administration have to fear? Student newspapers should embody their school’s educational values; real problems arise only when schools mislead their communities for fear of being criticized.

Above all, it’s a matter of narrative. Just as the Tribune and Sun-Times control the broader narrative of Chicago, the Midway, Forum, Weekly, Spirit, and others seek to tell the story of independent school students. 

Until these newspapers all reflect student voices, truthfully, respectfully, and uncontaminated by administrators, this narrative will remain incomplete.

This story was originally published on The Forum on March 1, 2020.