Friday, October 26, 2007

What Teens Can Teach Us

October 26, 2007, 6:45 a.m.

Out of the Mouths of High School Student Editors

On occasion, the very fact that two related stories pass like ships in the night, each with no reference to the other, is really bigger news than what each reports.

So it was this week.

On October 24 the Press-Citizen Editorial Board published its take on race relations, Editorial, "All Johnson County should read 'Blood Done Sign My Name,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 24, 2007.

(Not incidentally, the author, Timothy Tyson, is speaking this evening (Friday, October 26) at 7 p.m. in Room C20 of the Pomerantz Center on the University of Iowa campus.)

And just how does the Editorial Board support its rather grand suggestion that everyone in the county should read a book? It says,

"events described in this book are not fictional and are not part of some distant past. The One Community-One Book committee chose Tyson's book for all Johnson County to read precisely because the retelling of this story raises so many still relevant questions about race and identity, about law enforcement and justice, about historical memory and willful amnesia.
And it goes on to quote Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley who tells us that the author's "chief aim is to persuade us that Americans are blind to their own history -- or, even worse, determined to falsify it -- and that they cannot hope to resolve the deepest and most intractable of all the country's problems, race, until they are willing to look history directly in the eye."

Fortunately, this issue of the paper made it onto the newsstands and porch steps of Iowa City.

Because, as a news story in that very same issue of the paper reported, another community paper, with a history of national awards that would be the envy of any commercial publication, was not so lucky. Rob Daniel, "Survey Prompts Pulling of School Newspaper," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 24, 2007.

You see, it turns out that the Iowa City City High Little Hawk newspaper Executive Editor, Adam Sullivan, and his staff decided that rather than just urge their readers to read a book about "the deepest and most intractable of all the country's problems" they would gather some actual data about that portion of the problem that exists within their own high school in an effort to promote some discussion and solutions.

Rather than praising these teenagers' commendable and constructive efforts -- going well beyond those of the county's well-meaning, book-reading adults, focused on problems far from Iowa City 30 years ago -- City High Principal Mark Hanson decided the better course of action would be to seize all the copies of that issue of the paper (without telling Sullivan or others on the staff) in an effort to prevent this recognition of the school's very real racial challenges.

Why? Well, you see, apparently in Hanson's view, the problem in the school was not the pre-existing tension and prejudice between the races at City High, the problem was writing about it. (The story, in fact, reported a survey of student option -- you know, "data gathering" -- that revealed to no one's surprise that 13% of the white students are responding with prejudice to their characterization of an entire race, in short, to a label rather than individual persons with unique personalities.)

Here are my reactions:

1. Principal Hanson's reaction to a newspaper story reminds me of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's reaction to the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

As Secretary Rumsfeld characterized the problem in his testimony before the U.S. Senate, "It is the photographs, the people running around with digital cameras."

The problem, in short, was the public relations impact on American citizens (and possibly the president's re-election), and on Iraqis' "hearts and minds." The problem was not our pre-interrogation techniques, the problem was the pictures of those techniques. No cameras, no problem.

Did Principal Hanson really think it was the newspaper report that caused what this morning's Gazette on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand editorial characterized as "three separate verbal confrontations" -- Hanson's offered explanation for seizing the newspapers? Did he really, like Rumsfeld, think if only there was no newspaper there would be no problem? It sure looks that way.

Had he made any prior effort to gather this data on his own? If not, why not? Was he aware of a race relations problem in his school? Had he done anything proactive to address it, or even to promote discussion? We now know what he is against, but what is he for?

"Just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should do it."

2. As a lawyer, it is with sadness that I note the extent to which the existence of legal standards can contribute to the absence of moral and ethical restraints -- as well as common sense.

Want a couple examples?

Because alcohol is "legal" and "drugs" are not, we send users of the latter to fill our prisons, and wink at the use and abuse of what is, by any measure, our nation's number one hard drug: alcohol (in terms of numbers of persons impacted, the seriousness of that impact, economic loss, relation to crime, and seriousness of medical consequences).

The UI's athletic program argues there's nothing wrong with its profiting from partnerships with organized gambling. Why? Because gambling casinos are legal in Iowa.
Did Hanson have the legal right to do what he did? Notwithstanding Iowa's legal protections for the free speech of high school journalists, he may have -- though I don't think it's as clear a case as has been represented.

The law says a principal can intervene in the case of a high school newspaper containing material that is obscene, defamatory, or that encourages students to engage in behavior that is unlawful or violative of school regulations.

Clearly, the survey and story violated none of these standards -- indeed, quite the contrary.

It is the final category on which Hanson relied: newspaper content that will cause the "material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

There are three arguments one might make as to why he was wrong.

1. As a matter of fact finding, a common sense, colloquial interpretation of the standard would suggest that "three separate verbal confrontations" -- something that probably occurs on occasion among faculty, as well as among students in the hallways, and is sometimes but a prelude to constructive discussion and problem solving -- scarcely constitutes a "material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

2. Legally, while I doubt one would win the argument (for a variety of reasons) I think there's a question as to whether this provision is constitutionally "void for vagueness." Under Hanson's interpretation a principal might very well conclude that criticism of the principal, or his or her unpopular policies, would cause "disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

3. Moreover, given the context of the other named standards, one could also argue that conventional principles of statutory interpretation should rule out the possibility this provision provides a carte blanche grant of justification for principals to act on their every whim, or otherwise render meaningless the statutory purpose of providing protection for student editors.
Even assuming what he did was legal, the far greater wisdom is to be found in what Rob Daniel quotes Adam Sullivan as saying: "Legally, he may have been able to do that, [but] just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should do it."

The Press-Citizen is right. It would be good for all of us to read Blood Done Sign My Name. It might be even better if we were also to read that survey and story in the Little Hawk and reflect on racial prejudice in Iowa City in 2007 as well as in Mississippi in the 1970s.

Additional stories:

As always, see State29 -- on this topic: "Da Principal is Yo Pal," October 24, 2007.

Erin Jordan, "School paper editor defends survey; The Iowa City High student says he sought to stir discussion about racism - and ran into censorship," Des Moines Register, October 25, 2007.

Gregg Hennigan, "Confronting Discrimination; Despite Confiscation, City High Newspaper Pursues Race Issue," The Gazette, October 26, 2007, p. B1.

Editorial, "Censorship Not Always Black and White," The Gazette, October 26, 2007, p. A4.

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