Cardinal Columns: Almost… Almost… Almost…

About six months after the Fond du Lac school district implemented a “censor them all, let God sort them out” policy regarding its student media, it appears the board of education has decided to act right.

According to at least two sources, the board met in a “workshop” earlier in the week and agreed in principle to a document that declares the publications of Fond du Lac High School to be public forums. This will essentially provide First Amendment protection to all of the media at the school, including the award-winning Cardinal Columns news magazine and Fondy Today, the school’s broadcast operation.

The policy is a one-year trial, with a few strings that could be problematic. Although the board did not include contingencies for the principal or any other administrator to approve of content prior to publication, it put in place a similar approval contingency on the adviser:

“Consistent with applicable law, the advisor may refuse to publish, display or post material that in his/her professional judgement (sic) is obscene, vulgar, profane, libelous, inconsistent with the educational goals of the District, is reasonably forecasted (sic) to disrupt the educational environment, advocates the use of drugs or alcohol, violates the District’s non-discrimination or other policies, violates the rights of others, violates any applicable state or federal law, or is unsuitable for its potential audience.”

It’s one of those things that could be horribly applied if the wrong person is placed in this role. That said, the read I get of the current adviser (Matt Smith) tells me the publication won’t have to worry much about the potential for adviser overreach. Still, keeping that one little spot in there could create legal liability for the district if something goes south on a published piece. That said, it’s a heck of a lot better than it was.

The board still has to approve the policy at an upcoming meeting, but their general meetings tend to be coronations and blessings more than actual public debate. This leads me to remain hopeful that this policy is on final approach to approval and that the kids will get what they have fought so hard for: The right to do good work in a censorship-free environment.

The bigger thing is that with a one-year trial, here are two concerns that need to be clearly highlighted:

First, knowing you are under the hammer tends to lead to a chilling effect. If you know you only have one shot to prove yourself, you’re going to be on your best behavior, sure, but you’re also going to be a little gun-shy. This is why it’s a lot easier to be yourself after 40 years of marriage than after 40 minutes of a first date. It’s that sense of trying to be more perfect than you actually are.

I have a sense that the kids are going to continue to do good work, but if there’s a story, a topic, a headline or whatever that looks a tad suspect, they might decide, “Hey, tie goes to the runner. Let’s let this be for now.” My hope is that they won’t and that they will remain just as fearless as they have been to get themselves to this point in the first place. However, I know my own behavior is representative of the same kind of chilling: When a cop pulls me over for going too fast, I spend the next six months going about 0.1 miles under the speed limit everywhere. Just in case.

Second, the board has to have faith. Several members have publicly expressed their concerns about the publication, how the kids aren’t “real journalists” and how they need “adult oversight.” I won’t bother to rehash all of these petty arguments, but I will say that they need to let go of this and let the kids figure things out as they go. If you want to give them a chance to learn, you can’t freak out every time something happens and try to grab control back. If they live in fear that you’re going to drop a hammer on them the instant you don’t like something, they’re going to make ten times more mistakes than if you left them alone. Don’t look at every iffy headline or controversial topic as a chance to freak out. Let the stuff run its course and see where it really goes.

Overall, however, this appears to be a really good step in the best possible direction. It took guts for this board to do this, as everyone was watching and there’s always a fear that if the board “gives in,” it could pave a path to hell. Still, as the board is watching the kids, everyone will be watching the board.

It should make for a very interesting school year.