I’ll be the first to admit, I was stunned at the way in which the Oshkosh Area School District decided to end the crisis involving the school’s publication, the North Star. If you missed the previous posts you can find them here and here and here.
The short version is that the district issued a two-page press release on Monday, saying it will no longer pursue any action in regard to the Hans Nelson story. It also stated the district has put the publication back into the hands of the students and the adviser and it will work to put in place a policy that codifies this for the future.
I have never seen a district turn that fast or that hard in that direction on an issue like this. And as my mother always told me, “If you’re going to criticize, you have to be willing to praise.” I emailed the district folks and thanked them for their work on this and I offered to help with the new policy in any way I can. The district made the smart play here and the folks there deserve the credit for that.
Other districts could learn a few things from how this all came to pass, so feel free to give this a read and consider using it if your administration decides to take a shot across the bow at your student media:
CENSORING THE STUDENT MEDIA IN THIS ERA IS POINTLESS
Administrators at Oshkosh North weren’t the first people to try this kind of information repression, nor will they be the last. However, I think it’s important for any administration to fully understand the point of censorship and why it has absolutely no chance of succeeding.
The idea behind censorship, in its purest form, is to eliminate the ability of people in an audience to get information on a given topic. If you have the ability to completely black out coverage of a topic, you will succeed in suppressing that information from reaching the readers and thus keep secret whatever it is you want to hide. This is why censoring a student newspaper in the digital era makes about as much sense as trying to catch water in a pasta strainer.
In this case, the district managed to pull the article off the website and stop people from seeing this information there. What happened next? WBAY, FOX11, at least two other journalists and one blog hack showed up at a public listening session where Brock Doemel outlined, on the record, every aspect of what was in his article. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the USA Today-Wisconsin network did a deep dive into this as well, only further focusing attention on this situation.
In addition, students have been sharing information via social media ever since this guy disappeared, other media outlets have offered to publicize the story and now everyone with internet access now knows what happened. The district’s press release seemed to indicate they realized this had gotten way more attention than if they had left the story alone.
Simply put, censoring the student media to keep this issue quiet works about as well as trying to extinguish your campfire with a bucket of gasoline. It. Doesn’t. Work.
EVEN IF YOU WIN, YOU LOSE
I was having a hard time making this clear to the attorney for the district when we spoke last week, so maybe I’ll do better here. I kept trying to explain that using the Hazelwood decision like a cudgel, treating student press rights as “less than” and coming down like a ton of bricks on students and media advisers doesn’t work.
Legally speaking, administrators usually have the Hazelwood precedent on their side, but a) it’s not the silver bullet people think it is and b) it was meant as a shield, not a sword at the time it was decided. Go back and read the decision. It’s terrible, but the core rationale behind this isn’t “Give administrators the right to censor at will just for funzies.”
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say censoring administrators run into a judge who has a strict interpretation of Hazelwood, hates student press and will side with an administrator, regardless of the situation, they will STILL lose. For starters, the administrators haven’t prevented the information they wanted to silence to remain private. Even worse, they have to go to court and beat up on one of their own students as a part of the process. The court of law may side with them but the court of public opinion will never forgive them.
As one alumnus of Oshkosh North pointed out to me, the media coverage of this issue wasn’t even about the bathrooms or the Hans Nelson at this point. It was about how the administration tried to kneecap one of its own students and one of its own institutions. The whole narrative changed and they realized they were on the wrong side of it. That’s why the decisions they made were the smart move. Other schools can learn something from them on this one, for sure.
THIS DRAWS MORE ATTENTION, THE KIND YOU DON’T LIKE
I got to sit through the core of the school board meeting last week, as the open forum session where I could speak came at the middle of the event. In doing so, I learned a ton of great things that the schools in the district are doing. The robotics team won state and is now headed to nationals. The students are putting on an incredible play that I want to see now. The student newspaper at the other high school in the district won a ton of awards at the state media competition. In all, there were at least a dozen really cool accomplishments highlighted that the district has every right to shout from the rooftops.
And yet the one thing everyone was talking about the next day in regard to this district was the administrative overreach of a principal and the suppression of free press in Oshkosh. That’s what people found the next day when they Googled “Oshkosh North” and looked under news. It was what showed up on the nightly news and in multiple newspapers. It’s also got people on social media tweeting at them, sending emails and letters.
The district essentially came to the conclusion outlined in Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find yourself in one, stop digging. They backed off of Doemel and adviser Jason Cummings, went back to the spirit of the law for the North Star and they agreed to move forward to change the policy for good. Once they get this nailed down through the board, I’m hoping they make the announcement to show they completed this whole process so everyone can feel good as they move on.
That will get you the kind of attention that befits a quality educational institution.
THE MORE YOU TOUCH IT, THE RISKIER IT IS FOR YOU
Opening up the door to allow students to do whatever they want under the guidance of an honest-to-goodness journalistic adviser can scare the hell out of administrators.
In some cases, it’s because the admin folks are control freaks who enjoy dominion over all they survey, like an Alexander the Great with a master key. In other cases, it’s because they have been told a squillion times about the liability that that comes when a kid does a dumb thing. In other cases, it’s because nobody likes hearing bad things about a place they care about, especially if they are responsible for the upkeep of that place’s image.
I’m sure I’m missing a few other reasons, but the point is, this idea of giving a group of kids free reign over a publication with the school’s blessing can seem terrifying.
So why not slam the lid on this thing, eliminate the risk and take control over the whole thing? Because that puts you at even greater risk than you are if you opened up the whole thing and let kids do whatever they want.
The minute you touch the student media, you put yourself in the unenviable position of being responsible for it. That means the one day you blow off reading an article and some kid libels a janitor, that’s on you and the district. The attorney for the Oshkosh district told me after the listening session that the district is “where the deep pockets are in the case of a lawsuit.” Right. Which is why you don’t want your pockets associated with those people who might go digging.
Court rulings, even those after Hazelwood, have found that the best case a district can make against being successfully sued for the content of a student media outlet is to leave the content decisions in the hands of the students.
In other words, you break it, you bought it.
Which actually reinforces an even larger point when it comes to the students’ behavior. If you provide them with the ability to control the dice and yet the responsibility for dealing with the blow back from anything they publish, you train them to treat that responsibility seriously.
If you tell them that you’re going to be backstopping everything they want to run, you will have one of two unpleasant scenarios:
- They will be less diligent when it comes to accuracy, ethics and other similar things, thus leading to riskier journalism due to their lack of care.
- They’ll spend half of their time trying to sneak something past you because it’s fun to mess with authority, thus forcing you to spend most of your day on Urban Dictionary trying to find out if ‘mercan is a patriotic typo or something that should result in a phone call to the author’s parents.