Recently, Principal Cheryl Alligood of Wellington High School in Wellington, Florida, confiscated copies of the school newspaper, The Wave, over an article about sex. She claims she did "what was best for the student body." We think her decision taught students the wrong lesson.
School papers provide a critical forum for expression and discussion for students. Unlike the classroom, students make decisions about what goes into the paper, based on their perceptions of what is important to the student body. They learn to think through these issues by seeking out relevant facts and opinions, and by responding to the letters and comments that their articles stimulate. The process teaches not only research and writing skills, but also makes students learn to be responsible for how they voice and support their conclusions and positions.
Controversial subjects often provide the best educational tool, as student reporters, editors, and readers figure out how to have a civil exchange of opinion about sensitive topics on which people strongly disagree. Where will students learn to discuss these issues, if not in school? Only in the school setting can the conversation be moderated, and students directed into constructive modes of discussion and debate.
By censoring the student press, Principal Alligood deprives students of the opportunity to learn these lessons and hone their skills in dealing with difficult issues. Moreover, she sends the message that "controversial" topics cannot be discussed publicly. However, the ability to engage in public debate about contentious topics is a critical skill for citizenship in a democratic society, and any public school that does not help students learn to do so in an educated and thoughtful fashion is failing not only the students but the community at large.
High school students are fast approaching adulthood. For many, adult roles are thrust upon them even in their high school years. They need—and are entitled to receive—the tools to help them conduct themselves responsibly as adults. According to NCAC Executive Director, Joan Bertin, "If it is a 'distraction' for students to read an article about making a considered decision before engaging in sexual activity, one can only hope they get distracted often."