A satirical article in the latest issue of Traverse City Central High School's Black & Gold newspaper has upset some parents – but school district officials say the controversy presents a learning opportunity for students who worked on the paper.
A short feature in the Black & Gold's March 1 edition, in its satire section called The Leek, offers the headline “Grinding: A guide for future reference.” Mocking the district's recent crackdown on lewd dancing at school events, the article gives step-by-step instructions on how to perform “grinding,” or sexually suggestive dance moves. Accompanying photographs show two students acting out each step.
Parents took to Facebook yesterday to complain about the article, arguing the photos and subject matter were “highly inappropriate.” Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) Superintendent Steve Cousins reviewed the complaints and agreed with parents' assessment, telling The Ticker: “The students' attempt at satire crossed the line.”
However, both he and Traverse City Central High School Principal Rick Vandermolen defended the Black & Gold, noting that students are purposefully given a wide latitude in journalistic expression as part of their learning environment at the school.
“Our students take their work seriously and have won many awards as a result of that for the newspaper,” says Cousins. “We want them to be able to push boundaries and have genuine expression. At the same time, they need to be sensitive to our cultural norms at the school. They didn't use that judgment this time. But they're kids and they're doing their best, and this offers an opportunity for us to have a conversation about what's appropriate and how we can improve going forward.”
Vandermolen agrees, noting that while in this situation the students “clearly crossed a line,” boundaries are not black-and-white and the school's goal isn't merely to “publish a newspaper that's not offensive.”
“I want the students to have a wide berth,” he explains. “For me, it's not a disciplinary situation but rather a conversation with the students about proper conduct and expectations for the paper.”
Vandermolen says that he plans to meet with Missi Yeomans, faculty adviser at the Black & Gold, to review any possible necessary adjustments to editorial guidelines for the publication. Yeomans oversees student content for the Central newspaper on behalf of TCAPS.
TCAPS is just one in an extensive parade of school districts across the country that have wrestled with how much – if any – editorial control they should exert over student newspaper content. High school stories on topics including abortion, marijuana legalization, religion, politics, sexual orientation and -- yes, lewd dancing -- have resulted in heated school board meetings, the firings of faculty advisers and courtroom battles over free speech.
Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center, points out that students traditionally retain First Amendment rights while on school property. However, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier gives public school officials grounds to censor some student content “if they demonstrate reasonable educational justification” for doing so, says LoMonte. But “it's not terribly clear whether removing an article for taste reasons” is covered under that provision.
“Pornography is one thing,” LoMonte says. “But dance moves you might see on VH1 at four in the afternoon is something else.”
Even with that distinction, he notes that students should take into account two questions when deciding whether to publish content: What does the law allow you to publish? And what should you publish in the interest of good professional judgment?
“This might be an example of a violation of the latter, where it wasn't good professional judgment to publish this article even if they legally could,” he explains. “But the school district is absolutely right to treat this as a teachable moment, rather than a punishable offense.”
He adds: “If you punish people for journalism, you're going to produce a generation of timid journalists. Letting students learn from their mistakes will help them make more thoughtful and sensitive decisions next time.”