Silencing student voice

A commentary by Neha Madhira

How censorship proves administrators care more about school image than quality journalism

“When you censor blatantly, lies are just as valid as the truth.” – Lindy West

The New York Times opinion writer Lindy West was the keynote speaker at the Literary Lights Dinner, and there were around 300 people in the room. As she spoke about topics such as Donald Trump, abortion, sexual assault and the importance of speaking up, everyone fell silent, eyes widened and it was clear the room was divided. Occasionally, there would be applause from people including myself who were empowered by her, but as soon as she spoke about censorship, tears welled up in my eyes. All I could think about was the censorship at my school and the firing of my adviser.

I was Assistant Editor of our online newspaper last year and our new principal John M. Burdett censored our stories, banned editorials and fired our adviser, Lori Oglesbee.

Since Hazelwood gives administrators the power to silence us, I set up meetings with Burdett to reason with him and our editorial board sent a letter to him, the superintendent and the school board. In the last meeting I had with him and my father, I created a document for him with the help of Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Director Lori Keekley and Student Press Law Center Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand, but there were still no changes to the policy.

After the third time we were censored and editorials were no longer allowed on our paper, all I could think about were the students left in the dark about what was happening at our school. We could not talk about injustices or anything we felt could be improved, because our voices were belittled.

What West said resonated with everything we were going through because rumors or inflammable tweets about our paper and our adviser became just as believable as the truth, especially when there was no way we could set things to rest. For the last 30+ years, administrators have censored student voices with the concern that we will cast our school in a negative light, but in reality, it shows administrators care more about the image of their school than students learning about quality journalism.

Even after local and national media publications such as The New York Times covered our story and 17 press associations along with the SPLC sent our administrators a letter, we received nothing but a deafening silence.

Through West’s speech, it felt as if she acknowledged this and understood that even though we will never stop fighting, it is still painful. The blatant censorship of student expression still exists. Although I knew our focus had to be on the importance of student voices, it still hurts knowing that we had to trade our adviser for wanting the right to publish. West understood that censorship is a painful process.

To our administrators, it didn’t matter that we were reporting the truth or that we had a teacher with 35 years of experience who coached her students writing and photography so well they advanced to UIL Journalism State and won 175 awards in one year. If they didn’t agree with what we had to say, it would not be published.

This is why I started fighting for New Voices, a student-led movement which not only legally protects students from censorship by their administrators when they are reporting responsibly, but it also protects advisers from being fired or pushed out under these circumstances. West mentioned, “You can’t fight for something you don’t say aloud,” and if we don’t speak up, all of this will happen again. A movement can only succeed when students move out of their comfort zones and stand up for what they feel is right.

Neha Madhira