Topic: College of Communication Information and Media

February 2, 2009

School administrators are increasingly hostile to student press freedoms and First Amendment rights, says a new study from Ball State University.

Surveys of 700 principals from high schools across the country in 2004 and 2007 found that the majority prefer to rigidly control student publications so they can maintain order and prevent any type of controversy, said study author Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas, the First Amendment advocacy organization Ball State. 

"We witnessed school administrators taking a real turn to the right when comparing data from 2004 and 2007," said Watson, who co-authored the study with Vince Filak, a former Ball State journalism professor now at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. "Principals are increasingly less tolerant of press freedoms for student reporters. I think school administrators want only happy news in student publications and not stories that this age group may be interesting in writing and reading.
"It takes only one unhappy parent or local resident to call the school board to rock the boat. I think many principals, who may have the toughest job in this country, are often scared for their jobs. In a principal's opinion, controversy is not a good thing, especially when it's caused by the school newspaper."
The study found:

  • In 2004, about 45 percent of principals said their schools offered too few journalism courses. This fell to 36 percent in 2007.
  • In 2004, 99 percent of principals agreed that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. Three years later, the support dropped to 94 percent.
  • About 56 percent of 2004 respondents and 44.3 percent in 2007 said newspapers should be free of government interference.
  • When it came to student publications, only 7.3 percent of 2004 respondents and 8.2 percent of 2007 respondents said high school journalists should be allowed to publish without by interference by school authorities. 

Watson said that many of the principals interviewed admitted they are not as strongly supportive of the First Amendment, citing eroding civility on the part of students, unreasonable and outlandish student behavior, Internet abuses and a greater need for discipline, order and safety in classrooms.
The majority of principals said that some students had become too bold in their First Amendment expression, creating poor public relations for the school and exposing it to a threat of litigation, he said.
"To be a good citizen, you have to practice decision making and acquire leadership skills," Watson said. "When a school administrator squashes a person's ability to learn while being a journalist, the student stops growing. High school is the time to practice leadership before students enter college and the workforce. If they haven't practiced responsible decision making at this point, when will they?"