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Censored: the Pathfinder and student press laws

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Censored: the Pathfinder and student press laws

Pathfinder editors sit in the journalism classroom before school recapping that week.

Pathfinder editors sit in the journalism classroom before school recapping that week.

Caroline Judd

Pathfinder editors sit in the journalism classroom before school recapping that week.

Caroline Judd

Caroline Judd

Pathfinder editors sit in the journalism classroom before school recapping that week.

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The sun is still rising and the parking lot is only beginning to fill as 12 students sit around a table in room 3000, animated as they debate the use of an oxford comma in a story from that week and plan their trip to New York. Students furiously jot down notes for things they want to bring up next time—half an hour before school is never enough to cover everything.

As the bell rings there is a brief pause as most of the students exit the classroom, only for the chaos to re-enter with the first class of the day. Some students are only in room 3000 for five minutes before heading out to get interviews for their page on the yearbook and some stay in the classroom for four straight periods, using their study halls and any free moment to help newer students develop their stories for the newspaper. A constant flow of activity and chatter weaves its way through the room and out into the school, only ceasing long after most students have left the school. This is the newsroom for the PWest Pathfinder, the national award-winning student newspaper of Parkway West High School.

This is my fourth year on staff. As a senior planning on majoring in journalism next year, I am convinced that there is no better high school program for me to have learned the basics. I could justify this statement by pointing to the high-tech Mac desktops that line the walls of our room or our system in which students can check out a variety of top-notch cameras and lenses, but that would be misleading. Our advisor Debra Klevens has outfitted us with the resources necessary to succeed, but she has also given us something that is increasingly rare in high-school classrooms across America—freedom of the press.

Any story posted to the website is entirely student pitched, written and approved. Our administration does not require us to send it through them first, and on the rare occasion that they have a problem with something we write we receive a polite email in which we are simply made aware of the situation, not outright asked to remove or censor our content. And believe me, we’ve written our fair share of controversial stories over the years. From a news article bringing to light substance abuse in the Safe and Drug Free program to a recent editorial piece on the structuring of Parkway’s system for substitute teachers, we push against the administration’s policies, and they have had every opportunity to push back, hard, and limit the content we post.

Because of a court case started only a few districts over, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, school administrators are entitled to prevent any content from being posted as long as they have legitimate concerns about its interference with learning. Since this ruling, 14 states have enacted press protections for student publications, but that means that 36 states (including Missouri) still uphold this ruling in their public schools. The Missouri New Voices Act has sought three times in recent years to change Missouri’s laws on student press freedom, only to be shot down in the Senate.

There is no doubt in my mind that this freedom granted by Parkway is the reason my peers and I are thriving today. When we wanted to write a satire piece pretending the school was turning a bathroom into a Juuling lounge, our principal Dr. Jeremy Mitchell fielded calls from concerned parents who thought the story was real, defending us as teaching the student body to be critical consumers of news. When we wrote an editorial about the understaffed counseling department, Dr. Mitchell and members of the department agreed to meet with us to discuss our concerns. Same goes for our piece on substitutes. And on secretaries. And on the March for Our Lives walkouts. The list goes on and on.

Sometimes it’s easy to get swept up in how open our administration is to the pushing of boundaries by students. This year I went to homecoming with my friend at Living Word Christian High School and was told I would not be welcome if I showed up in a suit—I was forced to wear a dress because of my gender. If I had chosen to publicly discuss my disagreement with the other school’s policy, I am certain that Dr. Mitchell and others at West would have had my back. I have not only come to expect their support of our free speech, but am also well aware of our freedom of expression as well; this policy would be unthinkable at West.

Time and time again it’s been proven by our school that students need support in pursuing new ideas and developing their opinions (along with guidance if they fail), not rules set to stop them before they can even begin to explore the real world.

 

The Hazelwood case is the Supreme Court telling students that avoiding political controversy is more important than their first amendment rights, which limits the self-discovery and learning that comes from being involved with the world around us. At West, however, we’re fortunate enough to have an administration that has created a safe space for us to explore new ideas without fear of censorship. This year is the 50-year-anniversary of the ruling in a different court case, Tinker v Des Moines, in which the Supreme Court ruled that, unless student speech would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school, it was allowed. In light of this anniversary, we urge other school districts and the United States government to take a long hard look at their policies and support the New Voices Act so that other students have the opportunity to thrive as we have. Until then, we as a staff at the Pathfinder would like to thank West for granting us opportunities that the law does not: the freedom to grow as people and members of society while exploring our passion for reporting.

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About the Contributors
Dani Fischer, MANAGING EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Grade:  12

Years on Staff:  4

If you were a fictional character, who would you be?  Biggie Cheese

Does the toilet paper go over or under on...

Caroline Judd, SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER

Grade:  11

Years on Staff:  2

If you were a fictional character, who would you be?  Phoebe Buffay from Friends

Does the toilet paper go over...

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Censored: the Pathfinder and student press laws