In the Internet age, it’s impossible to censor for long

Officials at Benilde-St. Margaret, a Catholic school in St. Louis Park, have removed two articles from the school newspaper’s Web site critical of the Archdiocese’s DVD mailing against same-sex marriage.

Dr. Sue Skinner, the principal, posted this on the Web site:

The administration is asking that the staff editorial entitled “Staff Finds DVD unsubstantiated” , and the opinion piece titled “Life as a Gay Teenager” be immediately removed from the Knight Errant website along with the online comments for each piece. The reason is that while lively debate and discussion clearly has its place in a Catholic school, this particular discussion is not appropriate because the level of intensity has created an unsafe environment for students. As importantly, the articles and ensuing online postings have created confusion about Church teaching. The administration will be following up with the staff of the Knight Errant to review and discuss the protocol for what is appropriate content.

Is it a violation of the First Amendment? Probably not, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a case of a public school (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) that authorities have the right to censor school newspapers.

“A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school,” it wrote.

In that case, a principal had barred printing of articles about one student’s pregnancy and another student’s thoughts about his/her parents’ divorce.

But that was then. Now, the articles that were banned today can easily be distributed if the students at Benilde-St. Margaret want to push it that far. Any number of Web sites — including this one, I suspect — would post the offending articles, or the students could distribute it themselves using any number of social networks or blogs.

Almost two years ago, a school newspaper was shuttered in Faribault after it intended to publish an investigation of one of the teachers. So the students simply started publishing their paper online.

The ability to censor anything inevitably depends on the willingness of journalists to risk the consequences of opposing it.

  • Of course, there are forces in humanity seeking to censor the Internet. History indicates that eventually these forces will succeed, at which point those who seek truth & freedom will simply move on to whatever’s next. Sometimes one step ahead, sometimes one step behind. Information wants to be free. No dam can stand forever.

  • Andrew

    My search for the Faribault students’ online news site didn’t turn up anything except articles about the school shuttering the paper and editorials praising the paper for publishing the article that led to its demise. The site at the domain name in the article you linked is generic and may be available for purchase.

    It’s not clear if the students ever published their paper online. I’d like to hear what became of their efforts.

  • Tom

    I’m co-owner of School Newspapers Online, the company that provided a Web site to the students in Faribault shortly after we read about about their ordeal.

    The students published a few stories initially, but within a few months, they stopped publishing new stories. The site remained active for roughly a year, and the domain recently expired.

  • Jim Shapiro

    It’s a private school. A private CATHOLIC school. More power to the students if they want to change the structure of their chosen system from within, but the organization doesn’t exactly have a tradition of transparency or of tolerating dissent. The question of censorship in this context is moot. They should be happy they weren’t exorcised.

  • Jeanne

    I remember this from (way back) when I worked on my high school newspaper. The school did censor content they felt showed the school board and the school administration in a bad light after a teacher that many students thought was wonderful had been fired.

    What happened then was that some students created their own “underground” newspaper. That paper held back no punches, mostly fueled, I think, because they had been censored to begin with. Sometimes I think school officials fuel the fire by their knee-jerk reactions.

    If these students want a forum other than the school newspaper, they’ve got all the technology they need to do so.

  • The Hazelwood case only applies to public K-12 schools. It does not apply to private schools such as Benilde St. Margaret’s. Private actors (such as private schools) cannot violate First Amendment rights as a matter of law. They can, however, breach contractual obligations if the school, in a handbook or mission statement, has stated that it will not censor expressive student activity.