Sunday, November 27, 2005

He who pays the piper...

Some folks are pretty upset that a school principal has confiscated copies of the Oak Ridge High School student paper. Cries of "Censorship!" and "First amendment rights!" and "Free speech" are being shouted by various supporters of the students. What is being overlooked so far is that old adage:

He who pays the piper calls the tune.

For this current discussion the real lesson here, for these students and the rest of us, is that he own owns the press (or pays for the printing) gets to decide whether or not it gets printed.

The fact is that journalists since before Gutenberg have had their words censored by editors, publishers and even advertisers. Persuading those entities that the article is worth the ink and paper, the paper's good will in the community or the potential loss of advertisers or subscribers is just a part of the job. There is no Constitutional right to force a press owner to print your free speech. The reality is that free speech isn't really fee. At minimum it comes with an invoice from the printer, web host or soapbox supplier.

I suffered some of this reality check in my own high school years. I hope that the adults in this situation will not use the students as pawns for their own political agenda as was done to my high school journalism classmates and myself long ago. That would be a form of abuse that I can tell you still stings.

In the few articles available at this time I have yet to read if there was an adult advisor to these students. I wonder where they were. Why they didn't prevent this debacle? Were they given authority and then had it snatched out from under them by their higher ups? Will we end up with frustrated students who were betrayed by their authority or will they be encouraged to gather together the financial resources necessary to print their own papers?

From my point of view, a school newspaper is an extracurricular activity that falls outside any mandate the state may have to educate children. But, if the schools are going to provide this activity the lessons should be how to decide what to write, the fundamentals of writing for that particular audience and the mechanics of putting together a good publication. Somewhere in there it should also be touched on that unless you own the press you're going to have to compromise.


Anonymous said...

There is an advisor, and she was quoted in one article as saying that she was not entirely comfortable with the topics. However, she did not run it past the principal prior to publication, as is expected when there is controversial material.

I understand the students' side; as a member of the same paper's student staff 25 years ago, we had the April Fool's issue pulled (after printing). As an adult, I now understand that it was the right thing to do, even though it was maddening at the time.

It is a bit unnerving to see this issue scrutinized nationally (Fox News, ABC News, LA Times and others) when none have seen the articles in question.

Ron Franscell said...

From blogger Ron Franscell at ...

Pay attention, now. You kids in journalism class are getting several good lessons.

First, you're learning that publishers (in this case, school administrators) often see things differently from editors, and tend to be more concerned with business and appearances than actual journalism. Get used to it.

Second, you're learning that every story is brilliant to somebody -- and loathsome to somebody else. Get used to it.

Third, you're learning that people who dismiss the "media" as trivial, obsolete, wimpy and out-of-touch will still try to control it whenever possible. Get used to it.

Kay Brooks said...

Thanks for your contributions, Ron. You'd know better than I what they'll really need to learn for real world journalism.