Freedom of the Press: We’ll Take It

“Why do you want to write for The Phillipian?” asks the application for Phillipian Board CXXVII. My response sang to the tune of, “The Phillipian is the only true student voice in the community,” with the implied melody for the Marvin Gaye song, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” I categorize my reply as a nice blend of honesty and sycophantism. In retrospect, I wonder whether The Phillipian truly represents a student voice. Our students as well as our Admissions Office revel in the lack of faculty oversight of the newspaper, but editors still must be wary of offending faculty and administration unnecessarily for fear of castigation and even closure. Thus, the question remains: whom does The Phillipian truly represent? To unravel this conundrum, it may help to look at whom professional newspapers represent. Professional newspapers derive close associations with the popular opinion of their readers. The New York Times, read by liberals, reflects liberal opinions, as Fox News converses in conservatism. Does the writer of the reader develop the ideas and does the other bow its head in assent? The question is commensurate to that of the primogenital poultry and their embryonic posterity. For now, let us assume that fiscally motivated newspapers attempt to plug stories with which their readership will identify in order to sell more copies of the paper. The Washington Post exudes a variety of political opinions because of Washington’s varied demographics, so that, simply put, people will buy more copies. Protected by First Amendment rights, professional newspapers cater left and right to the opinions of their readership. High school newspapers do not revel in the same level of freedom as professional papers. Although few other high school newspapers in the country are as free from faculty censorship as The Phillipian, still, the glorious First Amendment, the pinnacle of American ideals, the culmination of civil liberties, offers little protection to us know-it-all Commentatortarianists. The Supreme Court found in the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Observe the broad malleability of the phrase, “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The Orwellian opaqueness of the phrase could include anything from unpatriotic speech to complaints about frozen bagels. And, typical high schools seem subject to just this sort of censorship. I site as one example, an article in this month’s Harpers Magazine by Rich Cohen, in which he examines a quintessential high school newspaper in Winnetka, Illinois titled New Trier News. He explains that a faculty Editor-in-Chief retains ultimate veto power over any topic, and thus students cannot write about teachers in motorcycle accidents or alumni with flat tires on the roads of life. (Let me be the first to report, here and now, uncensored, that Mrs. Chase and Mrs. Sykes secretly drag-race their Vets up and down Chapel Street, usually around 4:00 A.M.) Cohen implies that the existence of a faculty Editor-in-Chief may alter the opinions of the newspaper so that the distinct harmony of students’ voices becomes a cacophony of faculty and administrative opinions. The typical high school newspaper represents a blend of student opinion and faculty mandates. While not censoring The Phillipian, the administration does not maintain a completely laissez-faire policy. Editors and writers alike sense either telepathically or verbally what the administration feels is in bad taste, so this may translate into some mild form of prior restraint. The presence of a faculty advisor also indicates that the administration keeps its nose up to test the odors of student opinion. As one member of Board CXXVI said, “Our motto was usually ‘Write it now, pay for it later.’ Sometimes someone on the administration would call us afterwards to complain. But, we felt pretty free in general. The Editor-in-Chief always had the final say.” Indeed, few other high school newspapers feature editorials and Commentary articles, freely criticizing administration actions. The New Trier News, whose original 1919 mission was, “a full-fledged live wire newspaper, dedicated to boosting energetically our school, its departments, its activities and ideals” certainly could not. Thus, The Phillipian, being an amalgamation of the two types of newspapers, displays tendencies towards representation akin to both types of readers. To clarify, first and foremost, The Phillipian Board, like professional journalists, must attract a readership of students, parents, trustees, faculty, and administrators. Thus, occasionally, it is in proper order to critique the administration (they probably love constructive criticism like all of us), but a newspaper devoted solely to diatribes, however reflective of student opinion, would not be effective. The Board must exhibit discretion when writing, so as to maintain readership. As one former board member informed me, the Board occasionally finds itself forced to edit certain highly controversial articles in order to dilute their bitterness and give them less of a haranguing quality. It is my conclusion that, while primarily a student voice, The Phillipian must remain sensitive to administrative influences. (After all, we do need college recommendations, don’t we? And recommendations from our accomplished roommates are not yet widely accepted.) Nevertheless, The Phillipian probably receives more editorial liberty than almost any other high school newspaper in the country. In fact, many schools, tremulous at the very thought of empowering students, refuse to grant students newspapers at all. At how many high schools could we have multi-faceted discussions about an eclectic variety of topics? To mention a few: the CAMD articles, Pace of Life discussions, the controversy over Graham House, and the contemporary issue about suspended off-campus programs. And so, instead of turning this piece into a defamation of the evils of the administration, a path well worn by Commentary writers of the past, I wish to impart one message: The privilege for students to express themselves relatively uncensored to their pedagogical community reflects the magnitude of opportunity this school offers to its students. Thank you, Andover.