Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Time to End Prior Review at George Mason High

By the Lasso Editorial Board

“The Board seeks to educate young people in the democratic tradition, to foster a recognition of individual freedom and social responsibility, to inspire meaningful awareness of and respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

So begins Falls Church City Public Schools School Board Policy 9.46. But the policy continues:

“The school principal is responsible for approving all publications in accordance with School Board policy and his/her judgment and discretion.”

And with those words, in 1975, the Falls Church City School Board stripped The Lasso – George Mason’s student newspaper since 1950 – of its right to free speech. A bit ironic, to claim that censorship fosters a respect for the Bill of Rights, when in fact, it destroys it.

Prior review, the practice outlined in Policy 9.46, teaches students at George Mason that they cannot report on breaking news, or the difficult subjects that are constantly at hand in our community, without the approval of an administrator. How can Board hope to ‘educate young people in the democratic tradition’ and ‘inspire…respect for the Constitution” if students are muzzled of one of the five fundamental rights afforded all Americans?

We are the voice of George Mason, and it’s time that we stand up and take on the issues that matter, without fear of censorship.

In his majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines, Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Fortas’ words are as true in 2016 as when he wrote them in 1969. We believe the administration should not impede students’ constitutional right “based upon an urgent wish to avoid the controversy which might result from the expression,” as Fortas wrote.

Those rights that students brought with them into the schoolhouse didn’t last long. In 1983, a new principal at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri pulled the plug on a story the student newspaper was planning to run about teen pregnancy. The principal censored the piece believing that such material was not suitable for high schoolers.

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The Hazelwood students sued their own school system and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

This time, the first amendment lost.

In the landmark 5-3 majority opinion, Justice Byron White claimed that “a school need not tolerate speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational system,” therefore overriding the precedent in Tinker v. Des Moines.

At the Lasso, we find our views on this case aligned with the Justice William Brennan’s dissenting opinion in the Hazelwood case: “Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from [a school principal] to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our constitution guarantees,” wrote Brennan.

Why would our School Board follow a precedent that so clearly disrespects the very idea of democracy? While members of our community beg for more transparency and accountability from administrators, they forget that with the right tools, students can be the watchdogs of our school and community.

Amending Policy 9.46 would only serve to strengthen the community, benefit the administration, and give voice to the student body. Without prior review, student media would serve as watchdogs for our school’s decision makers, holding them accountable. We value democracy and transparency and this provides a voice for the students and a check to administration.

And no, we aren’t planning to write pieces slamming teachers or falsely accusing our administration of horrible acts because that would be unethical. We ask that our administration trust our choices as journalists. We follow strictly the code of ethics outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists. We seek truth and report it while minimizing harm.

It’s uplifting to watch as governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland just last month signed bills that allow the first amendment to flow into the newsrooms of his state’s public schools. What is Virginia waiting for? What is Falls Church waiting for?

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Our community is not one that shies away from controversy, nor should it. Falls Church should be teaching its students to use their rights in schools in order to serve as a public forum that holds administration and students accountable.

We look to administration to model for us the responsibility that the Constitution entitles us and allow us to exercise the rights we deserve.
Censorship is the currency of dictators. It does not “inspire…respect for the Constitution.” We urge the board to repeal Policy 9.46 and allow the students to have an independent voice.

 


The Lasso is the student newspaper of George Mason High School.

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