Editorial: ETHS censorship of The Evanstonian sets dangerous precedent

This past month, Evanston Township High School administrators trampled over their student journalists. It’s a recurring story at high schools — a student paper publishes a mildly controversial article and the school overreacts, pulling the paper off stands and claiming its material challenges school policy.

But that doesn’t make it acceptable. Students must receive space and respect to pursue stories about their communities. Their right to discuss potentially uncomfortable, controversial topics and address real issues must be acknowledged.

Unfortunately, the student journalists at ETHS weren’t given this respect when school administrators pulled the school’s paper, The Evanstonian, following the Sept. 22 publication of “The Pot Thickens…,” a section dealing with marijuana usage, legalization and distribution. The censorship was not only unnecessary and disrespectful to their work, it also sends a dangerous message to the ETHS community.

Administrators told staffers the articles might promote the usage of marijuana among students and could serve as an incentive for students to become marijuana dealers. One of the newspaper’s three executive editors said administrators told them the issue could lead to legal action against the school, but officials never explained why.

In an official statement, District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said the issues were removed for “(promoting) illegal conduct that also violates school policy.”

Courts have ruled — most notably in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier — that student newspapers can be censored when administrators have reasonable educational concerns about their content. But just because school administrators can restrict student newspapers’ content doesn’t mean this benefits the students or their readers. Even if ETHS officials had a legal basis for their actions, the censorship was a disservice to student journalism.

We acknowledge some of The Evanstonian’s reporting was irresponsible — particularly interviewing an anonymous drug dealer and not clearly disclosing the number of student respondents in its poll. The original articles would have benefitted from more thoughtful reporting, but school administrators should not dictate how the paper writes about sensitive topics. Further, the information provided in the articles is valuable, sparking discussion and raising awareness of student behavior. The school should not make moves that could dissuade The Evanstonian from tackling similarly contentious subjects in the future.

Weeks after initial publication, The Evanstonian will finally be allowed to circulate its marijuana-related section on Nov. 3, only after adding a disclaimer saying school administrators and newspaper staff don’t support marijuana usage and an infographic explaining its health and legal consequences. Forcing students to run additional content also sets a dangerous precedent of expecting student journalists to appease administrators in order to be able to publish their work.

When officials make decisions like these, the gap between journalists and our audiences only widens. It is vital that journalists’ right to discuss and report uncomfortable subjects is protected. In the future, ETHS should not meddle so brashly with The Evanstonian’s stories and should not infringe on the paper’s ability to comment on or cover controversial topics.

This piece represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of The Daily Northwestern. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members or Editorial Board members of The Daily Northwestern.