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Mason High Newspaper Editor Challenges Censorship Policy

GEORGE MASON HIGH School senior Kate Karstens, editor of the student newspaper The Lasso, is pushing for the repeal of the F.C. School Board “prior review” censorship policy. (Courtesy Photo)
GEORGE MASON HIGH School senior Kate Karstens, editor of the student newspaper The Lasso, is pushing for the repeal of the F.C. School Board “prior review” censorship policy. (Courtesy Photo)

On the eve of a new school year in the City of Falls Church, School Board members and administrators are already well aware of an important issue that the “rising senior” editor of the George Mason High School student newspaper will bring to them this fall. She has already met informally with a couple School Board members and is working on a formal statement to bring before the School Board in the next couple months.

Kate Karstens, editor of The Lasso, Mason’s mostly-online newspaper, is going after the Falls Church City Public Schools School Board Policy 9.46, which permits the school principal to review and censor news and commentary items before they are published in the paper, a policy known as “prior restraint.”

Karstens signaled her intentions by joining with student colleagues to publish an editorial in The Lasso and later republished as a guest commentary in the August 4 edition of the News-Press entitled, “Time to End Prior Review at George Mason High.” That was followed by an interview with her published online by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), where she was described as “a passionate voice for free press” who “has vowed to work for the repeal of the school’s prior restraint policy,” and enjoys the support of her student newspaper adviser, English teacher Peter Laub.

The NCAC interview quoted Karstens citing numerous cases of censorship of The Lasso in the past year alone, which she claimed violated the 9.46 policy itself. The policy, she said, “specifies that only articles that discuss the death of community members, criminal activity, discipline, drugs, sex, alcohol and violence are subject to review.” But The Lasso saw articles about student absenteeism and graffiti in school restrooms as among those that were censored by Mason Principal Ty Byrd, who left the school for a new position in Arlington last spring. She said she anticipated a similar response to a story on the school’s “abstinence only” sex education policy.

NCAC reported in its story that the Youth Free Expression Project is writing a letter to the FCCPS in support of Karstens and The Lasso.

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Karstens, who served as an intern at the News-Press a year ago and is now interning at the Falls Church City Manager’s office, wrote the News-Press last week saying, “I know that feathers are already ruffled but that’s just part of trying to get something done, I suppose.”

She added, “I hope that my School Board and teachers and community trust our school paper enough to give it the freedom to report on issues that matter to students. My dream is a new, free press policy that creates a deep sense of mutual trust between both the paper and the school system.”

Although revised only slightly, the 9.46 policy was adopted in 1974, 14 years ahead of the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood Vs. Kuhlmeier, permitting schools’ “prior restraint” over student freedom of speech. But the tide is turning, and the states of California, Illinois and Maryland have forbidden “prior restraint” by law, as has also happened for Fairfax County’s Chantilly High School.

A huge dust-up occurred at Mason High in the early 1990s when the editorial board of The Lasso voted to permit an ad from SMYAL, an advocacy organization in support of LGBT youth. At a special meeting of the School Board advocates for and against the decision spoke passionately and there were anonymous threats against the paper’s faculty adviser, the school’s legendary English teacher Michael Hoover, who stood firmly behind the student editorial board’s unanimous decision.

So did the News-Press, editorially, where as a high school student a few years later, Laub came to work and stayed on past his college years, before signing on with the Mason faculty five years ago.

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Karstens told the News-Press that her motivation to change the “prior restraint” policy came from attending a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Conference in New York last spring. “I saw all these amazing (student) papers covering these controversial stories with grace, and when I asked how they were able to do that with prior review, they all looked back with quizzical looks as if to say, ‘What’s prior review?’ I know that The Lasso can be the watchdog that this community is begging for and I’m just anxious to make that happen.”

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