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Message - SPJ Supports High School Newspaper Facing New Content Guidelines

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Posted by  Kevin Matthews on December 11, 2001 at 12:45:32:

SPJ News Release

Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2001

News editors, Assignment desks

Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or
Charles N. Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman,
573/882-5736 or


INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists is urging Omaha,
Neb., school officials not to turn one of the best high-school
newspapers in the nation into a public relations tool.

SPJ President Al Cross sent a letter to Omaha Central High School
Principal Gary Thompson last week asking the school to teach students
what real journalism is like - and maintain its long tradition of
aggressive reporting on the world inside and outside the campus.

"Real journalism can be messy and difficult, and sometimes even we
professionals don't make the right calls. But students need the right to
be wrong. They need the freedom to learn from their mistakes," said
Cross, political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal in
Louisville. "That
is why professional journalists abhor the notion that any student
newspaper should be censored. And it's why we protest loudly when the
target is a newspaper that has developed in students a tremendous
dedication, passion and responsibility. These are not just good lessons
for journalism. They are great lessons for life."

The high school's student newspaper - The Register - came under scrutiny
from school officials after Oct. 31, when it reported that a football
player had played in five games this fall after being charged with
assault. The article published the student's name and pointed to a
district policy that should have made the athlete ineligible for playing

"While most general-circulation newspapers would not have used the
student's name, many Central students already knew about the charges,"
Cross said. "Thus, some students were informed, at least partially so,
and others were not. Publishing the name made the same information
available to the entire campus; pulled back the veil of rumor, gossip
and mystery; and avoided improper reflection on other student athletes.
While this is a debatable decision, school officials are using it as a
pretext to impose their public-relations philosophy on the newspaper,
which will defeat much of the purpose of having a newspaper in the first

Principal Thompson said the school should not have published the
student's name and then told the paper's adviser that the publication
needed to follow new guidelines, reconsider the paper's variety of
stories and exhibit caution in handling controversial topics. Thompson
has said The Register staff needs to spend fewer hours on the paper,
publish fewer hard-hitting stories and write more about school
activities. The Register took home "best of show" honors this November
in a National Scholastic Press Association competition.

The Omaha World-Herald reported Saturday that Thompson says he has no
desire to censor or edit the paper but feels responsible for setting

SPJ has long been an advocate for excellence in journalism education
programs - in both college and high school curriculums. But part of that
excellence, said SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-Chairman
Charles N. Davis, is allowing students the freedom to practice
journalism without any form of prior restraint - just as professional
journalists do.

"Football coaches certainly don't ask their teams not to aspire to a
professional level of play, nor do band leaders or English teachers, for
that matter," said Davis, an assistant professor at the University of
Missouri School of Journalism. "Yet high school journalists across the
country are being muzzled, threatened and even censored. What are we
teaching them? That if the truth hurts, suppress it?

"The principal has told the newspaper staff that they will 'take a look'
at the next issue, post-publication, and then decide what action to
take," Davis continued. "The threat of censorship is in the air, and it
creates self-censorship. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that school
officials can exercise control over high school journalists only for
pedagogical purposes, and nothing that is happening at Central High is
related to anything other than administrator self-interest and spin

SPJ encourages its members and other interested parties to contact
Principal Thompson and voice their concern over the impending content
control of the student publication. Thompson can be reached at
402/557-3300 or Letters may be sent to 124 N. 20th
St., Omaha, NE 68102-4895.

To read letters from SPJ to Principal Thompson, log on to

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect
journalism. The organization is the nation's largest and most
broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free
practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical
behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow
of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and
educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment
guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


Sarah A. Shrode
SPJ Director of Marketing & Communications
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center
3909 N. Meridian St.
Indianapolis, IN 46208-4045
317/927-8000 ext. 213 or

Find details and entry forms for SPJ's professional and student awards programs:

Find out how to apply for an SDX Foundation Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information Internship:



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