The Missoula County Public Schools student newspaper controversy only magnifies the need for better management and less authoritarian censorship.

Consider creating an editorial board of students, teachers and a school administrator - modeled after professional news organizations. Replace passive advising with a stronger focus on journalism training and responsible use of the First Amendment.

While censorship by decree is ugly, many of its forms can be valuable educational tools. In fact, censorship is a common practice we all participate in and approve of every day.

Yup, we're all guilty. Here are a few examples:

• U.S. Constitution: First Amendment freedoms are restricted by federal law that explicitly prohibits publishing (making public) obscene, slanderous and seditious material.

Freedom to publish is sacred, but to survive it must be integrated with an equal amount of responsibility.

• Parents: "Don't you talk like that in this house!" Tempered with a sense of what's fair and appropriate, parental censorship plays an essential role in home education. Most kids have yet to learn that unbridled freedom of speech, without a vigilant educational process, would produce more garbage mouths, lawsuits and unnecessary wars than exist now.

Ever heard of a minor suing her/his parents over First Amendment rights? (Hey, kids, don't even think about it.)

• Schools: The orderly conduct of classes is possible only with a judicious form of censorship in force. If students were allowed to "express" themselves freely without some restriction and guidance, total pandemonium would demolish our public education system, as it has in many inner-city schools.

Students need to learn that there's more to freedom of speech than just flushing your mind whenever you feel like it.

Where to draw the line? Teach students to edit (censor) themselves by answering three questions: Is it true? Is it informative, relevant? Does it respect the rights of others? Given that, kids can beat the censors to the finish line.

• News Media: While the news industry is ever vigilant for censorship from without, there's an endless supply of it within.

The leading censors are the publishers who decide - by policy and decree - what appears as news, how it appears, and what gets left out. This "publisher's prerogative" often is applied judiciously, yet can be used to omit or color the news.

Another in-house censorship is "editing." Editors instruct reporters on what to cover, how to cover it, and they censor (edit) each story until they deem it fit for publication. Their judgments usually are based on worthy journalistic principles, occasionally not.

• Governments: Every politician and government's unspoken policy is to communicate whatever makes it look good, and censor whatever makes it look bad or requires accountability.

Does anyone believe anything that comes out our nation's capital these days? Private agendas and ulterior motives consistently bury the truth of matters so deep that our national conversation is mostly delusional.

Good, bad or indifferent, censorship is a fact of life. I'd like to recognize this fact in some suggestions concerning MCPS student newspapers:

• The publisher of MCPS student newspapers is the taxpayer, represented by administrators and teachers.

Taxpayers carry the publisher's burden of financing, management, maintenance and legal responsibility. Students need to understand that their "school voice" is subsidized, virtually free from financial and legal obligations. After students graduate, they can say whatever, wherever, whenever they want - and discover the joy of full accountability for all their expressions.

• Create editorial boards to teach students and manage school publications.

Don't leave this important responsibility to an adviser who simply "advises." A working editorial board can oversee the instruction of student staff in the fundamentals of professional writing, editing and publishing. The board could also respect and regulate the diversity of student viewpoints through reasoned guidance rather than arbitrary lockdown. Editorial issues should be decided by the board's majority vote, not administrative veto.

A reconstituted MCPS student news media program could be an excellent tool to help kids learn how news processes should work, and how to balance their freedoms with an equal amount of responsibility. The more students learn how to edit themselves, the less others will be inclined to do it for them.

Printer Bowler is a a journalist, author, teacher and Vietnam veteran who lives in Missoula.

 

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