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It’s two months into the year. The yearbook is well into production. Things are going smoothly. You can’t believe the staff managed to cover every football game in addition to all three charity drives and freshman student council elections without incident.  Could this be the mythical year that everything falls into place?  Is it the year that every adviser wants to believe exists but can’t seem to find? As these thoughts cross your mind, your editors approach your desk with that look on their faces—that look that says “You’re not going to like what we are about to say, but you look too serene, so we might as well go for it.”

“Soooooooo, we were talking,” begins the EIC, punctuated by a sideways glance to the co-editor, “and we think that marijuana is a huge issue at our school.  We really want to do a spread on it.”

Your heart sinks.  There is no way this will fly.  All the things that could go wrong start parading through your mind: the lecture from your principal, innumerable phone calls flowing in from parents who would rather pretend that their students live in innocent bubbles, loss of future sales from unhappy buyers—the list seems to go on forever.  Your immediate reaction is to say no, niet, nein.  But is this the best response to give?

Advisers already deal with such large amounts of pressure from all sides that it seems crazy to take on the stress that controversial coverage brings, but it’s important to remember that the publications don’t “belong” to the adviser. Students working on journalistic publications in high school have legal protections, and, depending on how the program is set up, those rights protect the adviser as well.  While Supreme Court case law like Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District sets the general standard for students’ rights, the states of Arkansas, California, Colorado, DC, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington have passed further legislation that more specifically protects advisers and students when including topics in publications that are often censored by administration.

An excellent resource for information and guidance on how to exercise these rights is the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization that provides free legal advice to those who have questions or need help with current issues.  Their helpline connects callers with an advocate who can answer questions pertaining to individual situations, and the website contains plenty of print resources with which to create lesson plans or educate yourself.  Their free legal advice makes this advocacy group quite popular among both student journalists looking to up their skill level and the advisers who teach them.

Refers to the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.  Three teenaged students were suspended for wearing arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. They claimed the ban on the bands violated their freedom of speech.  The case reversed the decision of two lower courts who initially ruled in favor of the school district. The decision is the source of the famous quote stating that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the school house gate.”

Refers to the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. After a principal refused to let a student newspaper publish stories regarding teen pregnancy and effects of divorce, the SC decided that school administrations could control content in student publications, but only if they could prove that content disrupted the educational process.

Public Forum is when a publication’s editors/staff have full creative control over content.  A publication can be considered a public forum either by officially stating it in an approved statement or through history of operation as such, though the latter is more difficult to prove in court.

Prior review is the practice of showing all content to a member of administration prior to publication. Prior review is allowed by all law, but highly discouraged.

Prior restraint is when a member of administration prevents a staff from publishing content on the basis of censorship.  In public schools, administration must prove that the content will cause a disruption in the educational process in order to enact prior restraint.


Regardless of how much research or preparation an adviser and staff put into planning for controversial coverage, sometimes the only way to learn is through experience.  Nobody knows this more than Pittsburg High School [KS] publications adviser Emily Smith, CJE.  Smith’s staffs garnered national recognition this past school year when her newspaper reporters uncovered credential issues with a newly hired member of administration while researching the run-of-the-mill story on the shift in leadership. Because this was not the first time one of her publications ran sensitive material, Smith and her staff were able to take the right steps to protect themselves after the story blew up.

When Smith began advising seven years ago, she didn’t always handle difficult stories with diplomacy.  Topics like drugs and inappropriate weight loss procedures on the wrestling team were qualifying her writers for Story of the Year, but she was facing criticism and impending disciplinary action on the part of administration.

“At first, we would try to keep stories like that a secret, but I realized that it wasn’t good for our relationship with the principal. Eventually we learned that we had to warn them ahead of time, because when the story hits the community, we aren’t the ones fielding the phone calls—it’s them,” said Smith.

Her administration does not invoke prior review or restraint, but the staff gives them a heads-up anyway, especially if they feel that the story might elicit an undesired response from parents or the student body.  Smith made sure to point out that it’s key that the students are involved in that conversation with administration when it happens, and it took quite a while to get her principal used to that idea.

Because both of her publications operate as open forums, the editors and reporters have full control over what is covered, and her staffs often take different paths when choosing which stories to pursue.

“Although I have some students who work on both staffs, it’s interesting to see how they decide on different content.  My yearbook staff tends to stick to stories on trends and the student body, while my newspaper staff focuses more on national, state, and community hard-hitting material.  I’ve tried to get them to change that, but it just seems to be the way they like it,” said Smith.


The fact that the students are the ones deciding on the content makes it a necessity for them to properly communicate the direction in which the story will go.

A good example of the difference in coverage was the aforementioned issue with PHS’ new hire.  The Booster Redux newspaper staff ran a full-disclosure story on how their new assistant principal had fraudulent credentials. The Purple and White yearbook staff ultimately decided to avoid controversy by simply writing about how the newspaper staff was invited to the White House Correspondence Dinner because of their investigative journalism.  Smith supported the decisions of both staffs, who were satisfied with the level of attention they gave each issue.  The newspaper staff knew, however, that their choice would not be free of consequences.

“The rest of the nation was really more impressed with the story than our local community was, to be honest,” Smith said.

Overall, the story was divisive.  As national media outlets descended upon the school for comment, faculty and community members were split in half on whether the issue was the students’ business, and they were not shy about making their feelings known to both the student writers and Smith, alike. Fortunately for her students, Smith spends time every year preparing them for the fact that journalism publications often receive more criticism than other school activities.

“Nobody goes up to the player who misses the game-losing play in the football game or the kid who flubs their lines in the school play and points out their mistakes to their face, but nobody hesitates to tell someone on the yearbook staff that they misspelled someone’s name or left something out of an article,” said Smith.

She feels it’s important for the kids to learn a lesson about how journalists are treated out in the real world and that they need to be both curious and courageous.  She believes that if students are taught how to be aware and balance their news sources, then they will face less criticism and become well-respected journalists or members of the community.

As far as personal consequences are concerned, Smith understands the hammer can always drop at any minute even though the law is technically on her side.  When she first began advising, she had a long talk with her husband about the fact that she wasn’t going to sacrifice integrity to keep her job.  She knew that the right way to run her program was to let her students be in control of content, even if that was harder on her.  Ultimately, she feels that if she were to lose her job over a press rights issue, it would be worth it.

“I can’t be someplace where they want to hire a fraud,” said Smith.


Knowing that advisers out in the real world have had success with upending stories is comforting, but it doesn’t help much when trying to formulate an actual game plan.  Sometimes the best way to understand how students can begin to exercise their rights is by asking for advice from an actual student.  Senior Olivia Rau, the Editor-In-Chief of Kirkwood [MO] High School’s award-winning Pioneer yearbook, has plenty of advice to give on how to succeed at evolving content in student publications. The Pioneer prides itself on comprehensive coverage that is widely accepted by everyone in the community, including school administration, faculty, and parents.

In her opinion, one key aspect of working with administration to understand why it’s important to include student-centric stories is to develop a process and follow through with it every time.

Rau feels privileged to have such an extensive knowledge of her rights as a journalist; she credits both her adviser, Mr. Mitch Eden, and her principal, Dr. Michael Havener, for making it a priority to teach Kirkwood’s publication students how to be responsible journalists whom they can trust to choose appropriate, publishable content. She now looks forward to teaching those very rights to the staff she will be leading this year.

“As Editor-In-Chief, I feel that I have a larger responsibility to educate new staff members on press rights.  It’s less about using my rights and more about teaching others how to use theirs,” said Rau.

In her opinion, one key aspect of working with administration to understand why it’s important to include student-centric stories is to develop a process and follow through with it every time.  The Pioneer has been so consistent with their procedure that Havener now trusts them to monitor themselves and only asks them to come to him with stories that might be considered extreme.  She feels that one reason he trusts them so much is because they make sure to cover all angles and include different perspectives from both students and adults, which results in unbiased coverage and fewer complaints.

One story that stands out in her mind as influential is an award-winning piece she wrote on race relations occurring at nearby University of Missouri.  Because so much of what was happening at the college was affecting seniors who had already committed to attending it in the upcoming fall semester, Rau felt it would have been irresponsible to ignore the story.  With the support of both Eden and Havener, Rau crafted a balanced narrative on a sensitive topic that resonated with a large percentage of the community.

“It felt meaningful and empowering to cover something so important. It’s not realistic to expect us to ignore subjects that are important to us and present in our lives. It’s all about finding a balance,” she said.

Rau believes that the school and local community are more receptive to controversial stories because The Pioneer staff works together with the school newspaper, The Kirkwood Call, to include similar content in both publications, which results in a well-adjusted readership.  The publications, however, are not always received without complaint.


While both Pittsburg and Kirkwood may have perfected the art of covering the controversial, this expertise came with time and practice. When considering what steps to take for your program, make sure to research what will work for where you live, talk with your administration to get them on board, and most importantly, educate your students on what they can and cannot do. Start small, and with a little practice, you’ll be shaking up a community near you with hard-hitting, well-written STUDENT journalism.

About the author

Mandy Mahan

D’lberville High School [MS] Mahan, Student Publications Adviser at d’Iberville High School [MS], has been teaching for 16 years, 10 of which she has spent advising publications.  She is the 2016 recipient of the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s Caroline Fair Yearbook Adviser of the Year award.  She currently serves on the MSPA Board of Advisers and is the state’s Student Press Rights Chair.