High school willing to pay price of free press
May 15, 1999
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Many schools have newspapers, but few like the one at Middle College High in Queens, New York. The students deliver the weekly news completely uncensored.
"Rather than seeing the newspaper as a P.R. organ of the school, it would be a vehicle for expression and for empowerment," said Principal Cece Cunningham, explaining the rationale behind the paper. "And that in turn would improve the academic skills."
While students elsewhere may feel voiceless, the power of the press does well to motivate teens at Middle College High, which specializes in helping students who are at risk of dropping out.
"I think it's a good thing that they let us write what's on our mind, to give us freedom of expression. Because kids have a lot say and sometimes the kids are right," said one student.
The brainchild of teacher and veteran journalist Leslie Seifert, the paper covers school issues and is printed without prior review or approval from the school administration. Seifert believes the uncensored paper teaches students as much about society as it does journalism.
"The school is a community really. It has citizens. It has an administration, a principal who's like a president or governor," he explained. "Part of that had to include some kind of free press that was modeled on the free press that we have in the rest of the culture."
In 1988 the Supreme Court sanctioned student paper censorship, and many high school administrations took advantage of the ruling. At Middle College High, however, no one but Seifert sees the paper until it goes off the presses.
The front page story this week: the principal's decision to remove a sexually suggestive poster from school walls.
"Now if we run the picture again and it is offensive to some women, is that going to be not right for it to run in the paper if it offends people?" asked Seifert.
"No," a student responded, "because then we could defend it and say that we're putting this picture in the paper because we're writing about it."
Cunningham took the resulting article in stride.
"Well," she said laughing, "here's a drawing that is sexually gratuitous that I don't like around the halls so I take it down. So where does it appear? On the front page of the paper."
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