Tinkering with Prior Review: Why Journalism Matters #11

This is #11 in a bi-montly series by NCTE member Alana Van Der Sluys.  

Alana Rome

I had originally wanted to write a post this week on how scholastic censorship occurs not just at the high school level but also at the collegiate level. It would have been a nice procession from my latest blog on how such silencing affects civic responsibility and democracy.

But to paraphrase John Steinbeck, the best-laid plans often go awry. . . when scholastic journalism makes its way to the Senate floor.

On August 1, New Jersey Senator Diane Allen (R)  introduced a New Voices bill with Senator Nia Gill (D) and Senator Jennifer Beck (R) as co-sponsors. As a result, there are now identical bills in both the State Senate (S-2506) and Assembly (A-4028).

In summary, the bill would hold school administrators to the 1969 Supreme Court decision of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503. As a result of that ruling, students gained First Amendment rights for the first time; student press was protected unless deemed disruptive of the education process.

In light of incidences like Tom McHale’s resignation over a prior review controversy, John Wodnick’s resignation over a three-month censorship controversy, and Barbara Thill’s resignation over “changes administrators made to the journalism program,” it seems worthwhile to note that this new bill will protect journalism teachers and advisers from administrative retribution as well.

In a private email, Garden State Scholastic Press Association (GSSPA) founder and New Voices New Jersey contact John Tagliareni did point out a very crucial component to this bill’s success, particularly in its third introduction to the Senate: the public’s and Senate’s knowledge of the difference between prior restraint and prior review.

Administrators will still be able to exercise prior review, or the ability to view material before it is published. If a school exercises its right to prior review, it is typically a rule stated in the school’s handbook or is verbally agreed upon by the administration and journalism adviser; some schools do not exercise prior review by choice, but instead trust the journalism advisers and students to only publish what is protected under the First Amendment.

What the bill protects students and teachers against, however, is prior restraint of material that is protected under the First Amendment. Prior restraint, as the term suggests, prevents publication of material. This should only be done if the material is not protected under the First Amendment (i.e., material that is libelous, presents a clear and present danger to students and staff, and is disruptive to education).

Although not favored by scholastic newspaper advisers and staff, the option of administrators to use prior review is essential; administrators need to at least have the right to pull material that is not protected under the First Amendment. However, the bill will protect against the administration’s pulling articles because, for example, they are critical of administration,  publicize a district controversy, or present an unpopular opinion.

So far, the bill has received support from the Working Conditions Committee of the New Jersey Education Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Journalism Education Association.

For more information on this bill and how you can support it, please see and “like” the New Voices of New Jersey Facebook page.  Student journalists can also join the Student Chapter of the GSSPA.

Alana Van Der Sluys is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting. 

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

4 thoughts on “Tinkering with Prior Review: Why Journalism Matters #11

  1. If prior review is such an essential power for administrators to retain, I see no reason to stop at the student newsmagazine or yearbook. We need systems that will allow administrators to give play calls for next week’s football games a quick look before the ball is snapped. After all, administration certainly has some insights denied the coaching staff. What would happen if a pass play results in an interception, after all? And imagine what a losing record might do to the reputation of the school?

    More seriously: if the school hires a qualified, expert publications adviser, isn’t exercising prior review (though legal) a waste of valuable administrator time and an indicator of a lack of trust between administration, the adviser, and the students who are actually reporting the news?

    And are most administrators any more qualified to gauge the professionalism of a news report than they are to call football plays? Were those skills part of that Masters degree?

    Let’s face it: anyone given the power of prior review will find it difficult NOT to exercise prior restraint, even if the material passes First Amendment muster. I hope the power to make the decisions about content in the student press remain with the students, with support and counsel of the publications adviser.

    The state law will likely not ban prior review (most current laws do not), but that is not something to be celebrated. Including prior review in state student freedom of expression laws is an indicator of how much educational leaders fear the idea of true freedom of expression for students.

  2. Thanks for writing this post highlighting the New Voices of New Jersey bill. As you point out, the bill does not attempt to outlaw prior review, but this isn’t because we believe it is essential.

    In fact, like JEA, I believe that prior review is a practice that undermines the important work that student journalists do when supported by trained advisers who are easily able to identify material that might potentially be libelous or cause a material disruption. It’s through the conversations that we have with our students about material that may be illegal or unethical, that students learn about the limits of what it means to be ethical citizens. Prior review short circuits this process.

    Unfortunately, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get a bill passed that prohibits administrators from reading publications before they are distributed.

    I do believe that communication (and hopefully trust) between advisers and administrators is essential. It was when that communication changed to a strictly prior review process that I felt that I had to resign my position as newspaper adviser.

  3. I don’t understand how you can include this sentence in the blog post:
    “Although not favored by scholastic newspaper advisers and staff, the option of administrators to use prior review is essential; administrators need to at least have the right to pull material that is not protected under the First Amendment.”
    Unfortunately, a politician or administrator who favors prior review will quote your blog, not the comment section that follows even though the latter contains more educated commentary from seasoned journalism advisers and instructors. I hope that you will reconsider your position.

  4. Hi all,

    I’ve already spoke with Jack Kennedy (and I believe Tom, too) on this issue and clarified my position. Bernadette, I did not mean essential to exercise actively. In an ideal world, prior review would never occur or be allowed in our schools. Qualified advisers and journalism teachers teach students about media law and what is protected under the First Amendment, rendering prior review useless.

    However.

    This bill has been introduced into the Senate for the third time now. This tells me that perhaps we’re asking for too much too soon. No group of people in history has ever received all the rights and freedoms they wanted all at once. We may need to make some temporary concessions in order to get advisers and educators the protection they deserve. Is this ideally what we want? Of course not.

    I should have been more clear, perhaps, in saying that prior review is essential IN ORDER TO GET THIS BILL PASSED; not essential in and of itself.

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