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CENSORED?

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Some people in the community have learned that Clarion was not allowed to run an online  school board candidate forum with a live blogging platform called CoveritLive (aka ClarionLIVE!) which Clarion has used this year to cover football games, the Oscars, and the 2012 Presidential Election.

This is what happened.

At the beginning of the school year, the Clarion staff, working with sponsor Daniel Mancoff and Editor-in-Chief Katie Maxwell, began looking at CoverItLive as a journalism tool and discussing how to implement it to host a live nonpartisan school board candidate forum. Mancoff, acting in what the staff believes was his appropriate capacity as their advisor and liaison, e-mailed the candidates asking them if they would be interested in participating.  Within the first few days of the invite, three of the candidates – James Landahl, Chuck Snyder, and Joe Wanner – indicated that they would be interested in participating.  The other three candidates – Matt Sinde, Mike Welch, and Ed Jepson – did not respond to the invitation.

Through a meeting with Superintendent Kevin Skinkis, Mancoff was told to stop developing the event because the administration believed that students, rather than Mancoff, should have made the initial e-mail contact to the candidates inviting them to the forum.  After the meeting, Mancoff made no further contact with board candidates and handed over all responsibilities for planning a forum to the editors. Maxwell then e-mailed the candidates telling them that the forum was “indefinitely postponed,” and that all contact with the candidates about the election would go through her.

When the editors learned that they would not be able to run the forum, they were confused and disappointed and wanted to understand the situation better. They scheduled a meeting with Skinkis for Thursday, March 14 to discuss the issue. In the meantime, the editors began corresponding with the Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte. The Student Press Law Center is a Washington D.C. area organization that helps student newspapers “advocate for student First Amendment rights, for freedom of online speech, and for open government on campus.”

LoMonte explained to the editors that, in the SPLC’s opinion, neither the proposed candidate forum nor Mancoff’s involvement in inviting candidates to participate in it constituted prohibited political activity or censorable speech. He indicated that the administration’s decision to censor this event infringed on Clarion’s First Amendment rights and that the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court case did not apply to this situation.

In Hazelwood (see the case briefing), the Court ruled that a school may censor its newspaper’s content when it has a “legitimate pedagogical” concern if the paper is not established as a forum for public discussion. For instance, a school administration may pull a story when that story discusses sensitive topics that might be too mature for their intended audience, such as student sexual activity. The ruling, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, was a landmark case that sided with the administration rather than the student newspaper, as had been the norm since the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court case. Tinker allowed students who had been suspended by their board of education to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.

LoMonte also helped the editors draft a letter to present to the administration at the meeting. The students prepared the letter to request that the decision be reconsidered. Below is the text of the letter:

—————————–

March 13, 2013

Dr. Kevin Skinkis
Superintendent of Riverside Brookfield High School
Riverside Brookfield High School
160 Ridgewood Road
Riverside, IL 60546

Dear Superintendent Skinkis,

The upcoming April school board elections are of great importance to the entire community at Riverside Brookfield High School, including the students. As editors of the Clarion, we have put considerable time and thought into building knowledge and awareness of the election, in which many high school seniors are old enough to vote. We hope you will support us in that effort by supporting our use of the online platform CoveritLive to provide an online “chat” in which students can directly interact with the candidates in advance of the election.

We understand your concern that our adviser Mr. Mancoff not create the impression of employees using school resources to promote a candidate. Now that Mr. Mancoff has removed himself from involvement, this candidate forum is an entirely student-directed project. Absolutely no school funding is being used — CoveritLive is a free online program, so no school facilities are involved.

We plan to organize and present the forum in an objective and unbiased manner that gives each candidate equal opportunity to participate and respond to prescreened, unbiased questions submitted by either the staff or community members within a two-minute time limit. We will have at least three staff members, one being the Editor-in-Chief, running the forum. Two people will ask the questions, while the other manages the time and reminds the candidates of the time limit. After individual candidates present their platform on each question, the staffers may ask follow-up questions and the other candidates are invited to do so as well. To ensure that the live forum remains focused on the issues, community members will not be allowed to comment or pose questions.

Clarion is also willing to give you the opportunity to prescreen any questions the staffers may ask. In addition, there will be a disclaimer on the website page where the forum is located stating that we gave equal opportunity to all candidates to participate, the questions are unbiased, and this event is meant to educate the public on this local issue rather than sway any community members’ opinions or present an official opinion of the newspaper.

Because we are a public institution, Clarion has the protection of the First Amendment. Any order to cover or not cover particular topics must be justified, under the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling, by a legitimate educational justification. There is no legitimate educational justification for denying a student audience information about an election. Court rulings applying the Hazelwood case have never said that political issues are off-limits for mention in student media.

As you know, schools across America are looking for ways to promote “civic engagement” among young people, which is recognized as an urgent national need and priority. The rare opportunity for students to directly question school board candidates and bring student concerns directly to their attention is a huge civic engagement “win.” It will make a statement that our school and our district truly care about getting young people involved in civics in a meaningful way.

We feel very strongly about going forward with this candidate forum, as is our legal right, and we hope that the district will not stand in the way of this student-led initiative.

Sincerely,
The Clarion Editors

—————————–

At the meeting, the editors listened to Skinkis and Principal Pam Bylsma explain their reasons for prohibiting the hosting of the ClarionLIVE! forum.  It is our understanding that the reasons included:

1.  The belief that “too many things could go wrong” with the forum.

2.  The fact that the school is still involved with the lawsuit alleging that school property was used to promote the 2010 education referendum, which, according to Skinkis, was extended another  seven days at the time of the meeting.

3.   According to the administration, a candidate forum itself could be perceived as electioneering because students would use a school owned web site that is supervised by a staff member who is supervised by the administration to host the forum, making the newspaper a resource of the school.  Even if students entirely designed and ran the forum, the process was “tainted” because Mancoff, the activity sponsor, made the initial e-mail contact to the candidates to set a date for the event.

4.  There’s a concern about anonymity: that because this event would happen while students were at home on their own computers, anyone in the community could pretend to be one of the newspaper staffers or candidates and ask the candidates questions or debate with the candidates.

5.  In an online forum, student moderators would not be able to control the time if two candidates decided to engage in a debate with one another.’

6.  A live forum is not necessary because Clarion already ran Q&A surveys for all six candidates.

7.   The school’s attorney expressed concern about the forum and how it would be perceived.

The editors addressed those concerns as they presented both the letter and an article written by Oak Leaves (a Chicago Sun Times Publication) about Oak Park and River Forest High School’s similar candidate forum that was developed by the co-editors of its student newspaper, Trapeze. The event occurred March 8, 2013. The main difference with that forum and Clarion’s plan was that it was held in the school building and not online.

Bylsma and Skinkis also suggested that the students could re-approach the forum in a format similar to OPRF’s forum without RBTV’s involvement, but noted that the plan would not likely be accepted. They also commended the editors for the group’s professionalism.

In the end, the administration maintained its decision, but did say it would review the letter further.  In an e-mail that Maxwell received on March 19, 2013, Skinkis indicated that he had reviewed Clarion’s letter further, had no further comment, and maintained the administration’s decision to prohibit the forum.

With the election now upon us, Clarion no longer feels that it has the time necessary to host an online candidate forum, even if it were now permitted to do so.  However, as a staff, we continue to believe that the candidate forum, with reasonable modifications, should not have been censored by school administration, even given our sponsor’s actions to initially e-mail candidates to set a date for the event.  Given our readership, which potentially reaches the entire District 208 voting community, fair and open access to hear from and meet the school board candidates in no way promotes the interests of one candidate over another.  Instead, our candidate forum was intended to serve the broader purpose of educating and informing the public about all of the candidates.  Without Clarion hosting a live forum hosted online, the entire school community is being denied full access to information about the election, as no other live online or televised forum is being hosted during this election cycle to our knowledge.  While Clarion will not be hosting a live forum, we continue to believe that we should have had the right to do so.

Clarion has been and will be covering other aspects of the election, such as PTO meetings where candidates attend, community hosted forums, campaign coffees at private homes, and the election results.

The election is to be held on April 9.  We encourage all voters to become informed and to vote.

Editorial Note:
If it is not already clear, this editorial represents the combined views of all of the students and student editors on the Clarion staff.  It is in no way meant to represent the official opinon of Riverside Brookfield High School, District 208, or any of its employees.

10 Comments

10 Responses to “CENSORED?”

  1. Vija Lietuvninkas on April 2nd, 2013 11:08 am

    This is the first I’ve heard of all of this, and it’s deeply, deeply saddening.

    I’d like to congratulate the Clarion staff as well as Mr. Mancoff for fighting against what appears to be a quickly deteriorating administration. You all know that you’re right in fighting for this, and it’s painfully clear to everyone else.

    Just wanted to send some support and solidarity. Never stop fighting. Keep asking all the right questions. You guys are awesome.

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  2. Elizabeth M. Gomorczak on April 2nd, 2013 1:14 pm

    Great job, students! Keep up the positive, professional fight for your rights. You are doing all the right things, but more often than not, it takes time. You have set the stage for the next round. Keep moving forward!

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  3. chris robling on April 2nd, 2013 2:37 pm

    as a community member, activist, parent, former journalist, and indeed one-time student journalist, i hope the clarion sends reporters to the forums tonight and tomorrow night, and that it provides full and fair coverage for all of your many readers. i understand disappointment about the live blogging — but please do not let that get between you and covering the only two forums of this campaign season. best, chris robling

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  4. Kim Bolton on April 2nd, 2013 4:30 pm

    I am so impressed with the maturity, professionalism and determination of the Clarion staff, and incredibly disappointed in Superintendent Skinkis and Principal Bylsma. The administration could learn a thing or two from the students.

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  5. Jeffrey Miller on April 2nd, 2013 5:53 pm

    I commend the editors of the Clarion for attempting to exercise their first amendment rights by hosting what would have been an informative online forum about a topic which intimately affects the students at RB and the entire community.

    Unfortunately, as you are learning in this case, not everyone believes in freedom of speech (it is often messy and inconvenient and contentious) and often times the very people we place in positions of authority and who should know better who are most apt to abuse their positions in misguided attempts to control the flow of information or to make sure that something they consider undesirable doesn’t happen. You shouldn’t let that discourage you however, but continue to pursue the goal of open and free communication which is the basis for a just and free civil society.

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  6. Bill Judy on April 2nd, 2013 6:13 pm

    Bravo to the Editors of the Clarion. Great effort to get a forum put together. I understand the litigation issues with which the administration feels compelled to be concerned, but had all 6 candidates responded favorably to the initial request to participate I am sure it would have happened, in one form or another. Do not be deterred with your ambitions and continue to push for what you believe in. Ask the candidates tonight if they would have liked to have been in an RB student led forum.

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  7. Victor Xu on April 3rd, 2013 11:43 am

    I just heard about this situation at the Clarion, and I’d like to offer my support along with the support of 45words, a student-run press rights commission created by the JEA to reach out to high schools facing censorship. I understand how frustrating this situation is, given how innocuous and well-intentioned an online forum for a school board election seems.

    You made a good decision to contact the SPLC. If you would like any additional guidance from a student perspective, feel free to update 45words on your situation through here: http://45words.org/under-fire/

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  8. Alleigh on April 3rd, 2013 8:07 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Katie! The page looks great and this was a very well written article. I’m a little concerned by the censorship, you had every right to do the blog. Keep pushing the limits! Great job guys!

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  9. Louis on April 4th, 2013 2:34 pm

    Take them to court. I’m sure you could find someone to do it pro bono.

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  10. Larry Flam on April 5th, 2013 2:54 pm

    Mr. Mancoff and the Clarion staff are to be applauded for standing up to the shameful behavior of the Administration. Oh yes. Character Counts at RB….in the Student Body and Faculty. It is a sad day for RB. For an administration and Board that profess to encourage transparency and open communication, Hypocrisy rules the day! Wow. What a game changer for this election.

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CENSORED?