Censoring Inconvenient Truths–in Virginia


Related imageIt used to be that high school officials could censor student journalists’ media content with impunity but in recent years, after court challenges that upheld the student newspapers’ right to publish, such cases have dramatically declined. Now, however, a censorship case has again arisen, in Norfolk.

That city’s Maury High School is 109 years old and its physical condition is well known in the community. In fact, last fall, state legislators toured the building, and heard serious entreaties for more funding for facility improvements. Yet the physical plant’s deterioration has continued. 

A recent graduate, Douglas Deutsch, and a friend in his broadcast news class, decided to do something about it. Said Deutsch, “I think (students) deserve having a better building than what they currently have.” For the last Commodore News broadcast of the year, Deutsch and friend Jalen Rogers filmed some of the school’s areas of disrepair. They did not think of this as controversial since the conditions were obvious and so well known. Ah, naivete.

Within days of the posting in May, administrators ordered the removal of the video’s entire broadcast, which included other stories as well, from the Commodore News’ YouTube channel. The young journalists were surprised. According to Deutsch, they put a lot of work into it, and tried to keep it as objective as possible. The video also featured an interview with a teacher who had been a student at the school, discussing the history of the building.  Sounds like pretty solid reportage.

According to a school district spokesperson, “the students did nothing wrong.” Yet the school’s principal and the district’s executive director of secondary schools reviewed the video after it was posted and “collaboratively made the decision” to take it own [emphasis added]. 

In his interview with the students, the teacher—a library media specialist and Commodore News’ adviser—discussed renovations at the school and the current state of the building, according to a review of the news segment that was obtained and posted online by a parent after the official video disappeared. But this was characterized by the district spokesperson as “commentary by the teacher that was not in line with NPS [Norfolk Public Schools] policy.” What did the teacher say that was so troubling?

When it (re-)opened, it did so to great fanfare because the old girl had been modernized in many ways. The current condition is definitely poor. It’s an old building, but like everything else, it needs to be maintained, and some of the budget situations that have occurred in [NPS] have made it such that they don’t have enough money to dedicate to renovating buildings or keeping them in good repair.

Oh-oh. Implied criticism of administrators’ use of taxpayers’ money? Can’t have that. 
In Virginia, school administrators have wide latitude regarding censoring student speech, but courts have said they must have an educational justification for doing so.  Hmmmnnn!!  Seems the administration failed to recognize a teeachable moment and, instead, engaged in censorship suffocating student creativity.  Inconvenient views are not educational justification.  
Del. Chris Hurst, a Democratic delegate from Southwest Virginia and a former broadcast journalist, said censorship like this is “beyond the pale” and was why he introduced legislation last session that would have given student journalists more rights. The bill died in subcommittee.
Embarrassment is no reason to censor. Teaching students that it is, is a convenient lie.

Categories: Issues, Local, National

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