Thursday, January 19, 2012

High School Newspaper Censored as Bullying for Anti-Gay-Adoption Editorial

Here's a new twist on bullying -- an interesting story out of Wisconsin, where a high school newspaper ran pro and con editorials about gay adoption, to the distress of gay parents whose children attended the school:
A gay couple with school-age children is outraged over a Shawano High School newspaper column that cites Bible passages and calls homosexuality a sin punishable by death.

The column ran on the editorial page of Shawano High School's Hawks Post recently as part of an opinion package about gay families who adopt children. The other side said sexual orientation does not determine a person's ability to raise kids.

"This is why kids commit suicide," said Nick Uttecht, who is raising four children with his partner, Michael McNelly.

Uttecht told school district officials he thinks the piece opposing gays as parents is hateful and should not have run. He worries the strong language will hurt his children and could lead students to bully gay classmates.

School officials apologized and said they will review the process for editing and producing the paper.

* * *

David Hudson, an expert for the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group First Amendment Center, said the column may be distasteful to some, but student journalists were practicing their constitutional right to free speech.

"Bullying is a serious concern, and I don't take it lightly. But I hope it doesn't lead to squashing different viewpoints. I do think (gay adoption) is an issue people are deeply divided about. Hopefully student journalists don't have to fear they'll be squashed if they take a controversial view."

* * *

Although students have the right to voice their opinion, it doesn't mean they should say it in a school paper, said Christine Smith, assistant professor of psychology, human development and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

"High school students are at a time in their life when they are developing intellectually and socially," she said. "To see something like this debated in the paper could be devastating. How would you feel if someone said your family is abnormal, is not acceptable, that your parents never should have been allowed to have you, that they're not suitable to raise you?

"Of course, it's got to be harmful. Kids this age are so worried about discovering who they are and what they are. To have them told their family is immoral and not suitable has to be devastating. To be told by your peers, people you see in the hallways, these people who clearly have passed judgment."
So what do you think?  Should the student newspaper be able to publish controversial opinions that may adversely affect some students?  I'm pretty much a First Amendment purist, but the Supreme Court isn't when in comes to school papers.  The court has said that school administrations can in fact censor school newspapers so long as they have a reasonable educational justification, as I learned to my displeasure as a high school newspaper editor!  Preventing bullying, creating a non-discriminatory learning environment, should qualify as a reasonable educational justification for limiting hateful student speech in the newspaper, right? I don't think I would have bought that argument as a high schooler, opinionated on rights and the perogatives of journalists.

But as a parent?  Maybe my desire to protect my children makes me a tad more sympathetic to the position of the school administration. I wouldn't want my kids to read stupid articles that opined on the inappropriateness of single parenting or transracial adoption or international adoption, or the inferiority of China or the like, and I would be worried that such an article would make other students more willing to bully my kids. But on the other hand, the articles here offered both arguments for and against, the audience was high school and not younger kids, and I guarantee that my kids would have already heard all the pro and con opinions folks harbor about our family structure before they ever saw such an article. But on the other other hand, should my kids have to deal with those obnoxious opinions in school, which should be a safe harbor?!



LilySea said...

If it said that gay people deserve to die then it crossed a line the first amendment doesn't protect. That's incitement to violence.

malinda said...

Here's the exact quote from the editorial:

"In the United States only 11 states allow same-sex marriage. Most do not because our government is generally based off of religion and the Bible. Also, if one is a practicing Christian, Jesus states in the Bible that homosexuality is detestable act and sin which makes adopting wrong for homosexuals because you would be raising the child in a sin filled environment. Leviticus 20:13 states “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their blood guilt is upon them.”

It's clearly awful, but is it incitement?

Steve said...

As another First Amendment purist, I think that schools have two choices: (1) Allow both sides to present their arguments and let those arguments stand or fall on their merits; or (2) Not permit editorials on controversial, non-school specific subjects (which would be their right as publisher).

To permit only one side to editorialize would put the school in an advocacy position which is not their mandate.

Sunday Taylor said...

I think it is great to allow high school kids to debate both sides of an issue, even a controversial one...where I would have an issue is the bible quote...but is free speech, is free speech, is free speech?

Anonymous said...

Has school ever been a safe harbor for kids? When I was a kid school was something to be endured (not because of my classes but because of the other kids) and home was a safe harbor. I know there are plenty of kids out there who don't have that at home, but school rarely provides that role either. Anyway so far our school has been pretty safe for my kids, but if I ever feel that it isn't we will be homeschooling. Most schools are not safe places for kids in terms of emotional and physical pain. I don't see how that will ever change.

The Gang's Momma! said...

I'm with Steve. To limit one side of the conversation because of concern for hate speech isn't necessarily exercising the school's right to censor. Depending upon your perspective in any given issue, censoring can be bias. The school's role is to educate, present the facts, and allow students (especially at the high school level) to form their own opinions and responses to the facts.

I'm also with Anonymous - schools are supposed to be safe but to be a safe haven? No. That denotes something altogether different and as they exist now, schools by and large are not safe "havens." Uncomfortable, awkward, challenging, stimulating, intimidating, growth-oriented, yes. And more. But "haven" denotes (imo) emotional and mental rest and I don't see that as a school's role, for good or for bad outcomes.

The staff advisor to that school paper staff could (and should?) encourage editorials that maybe choose less inflammatory tones and/or less rhetoric in their opinions and phrasing. But pointed toward encouraging the student in question to thoroughly think out and articulate what he or she really believes about the issues, not spouting catch phrases and rhetoric he or she hears all around.

And for a student who lives according to Biblical tenets, quoting that as a source is completely acceptable. Offensive to some, sure; but clearly the foundation of his or her world view and not inciting in and of itself. It is, after all, an editorial, which by definition is his or her opinion which flows from that worldview.

Kris said...

I agree with Sunday....was this a public school? If so, Bible quoting HAS NO PLACE in the school paper. It is inappropriate. If schools are not allowed to have "Christmas parties", "Christmas break", etc, why should they be allowed to quote the Bible in the school paper? If religious objection is the only reason someone can come up with, they should just say that without quoting the Bible. School may not be a "safe harbor" but it is not supposed to be place where religious views/values are expressed. If you want that for your child, send them to a Christian school or homeschool.

On the other hand, while I understand the parents' objection and I would probably be very upset if I were in their position, you have to be careful about censoring things just because you don't agree. It is a good time to discuss it with your child and explain your position, and allow your child exposure to both sides. High school is supposed to be getting kids ready for the real world. It is a good time to learn that you will not agree with or even like everyone and that is OK.

malinda said...

Would we react the same way if the issue were different? What about an editorial disapproving of transracial adoption or marriage, claiming that the bible opposes race-mixing? Even if both sides were represented?

The Gang's Momma! said...

I stand by my response no matter the issue. Students must learn to reconcile their beliefs (usually brought to the table by their upbringing)with what they are learning. It's part of their education - in school and in life.

I would expect that a Muslim student who is basing his life on his view of truth as written in his holy book, the Koran, would be the source of his belief system. I would expect that as he is wrestling with any of the mentioned issues, he would look to that truth-source to measure his response and his developing belief.

I may not like it personally, but part of his educational process is to hold up what he believes against what he is experiencing and learning and work the questions and issues for himself. Given that this is AN EDITORIAL, quoting his faith's source and foundation is acceptable. I would expect that a Christian who holds The Bible as his truth-foundation should be afforded the same freedom - especially IN AN EDITORIAL. This is not hard news we're discussing. It's a debate of opinion between students learning to articulate their thoughts and beliefs.

malinda said...

As to the "religion has no place in public schools" argument -- that isn't actually the legal standard. A public school can teach a comparative religion class, for example, and a history class can talk about the religious component of the Crusades and an English class can talk about how biblical passages influenced some author's writing. It's a question of pedagogical purpose.

That's why, at least legally, I don't think it would be a problem to support editorial arguments in the school paper with biblical passages. But I think it would also be well within the authority of the administration to edit out or tone down language, even biblical passages, if there is some reasonable educational purpose.

Meredith said...

To somewhat echo what Steve said, first amendment purist and a lesbian mom. I prefer Steve's option one as hopefully the use of these activities, encourages conversation on the issues and also teaches our children to respectfully disagree.

Kris said...

The difference between a comparative lit class and this editorial is that the editorial is making judgments based on religion. It is condemning others based on religion. It is morally judging others based on what is in the Bible. That is different than learning about religion in a class. I think comparative lit classes are a great idea for high school. I don't think religious judgments (and especially condemnation of others) have any place in public school.

Steve said...

Followup on the Shawano school newspaper controversy:

According to the 15 year old student, the superintendent was personally offended by his viewpoint, pulled him out of class to berate him and call him ignorant, and banned him from writing from the school newspaper. The superintendent denies calling the student any names, but admits that he spoke to the student about the editorial column.

It looks like this case is heading to court as the student's attorney is threatening litigation unless the superintendent issues a sincere apology and the school district sets forth a clear First Amendment policy on school newspaper editorials.