by Nicole Kiefert (@nicole_kiefert)
Have you ever gotten chills reading a story? A story so well written and so moving that you sit and stare at it after you have finished just to recompose your thoughts? That was my reaction to reading “The Rape Joke” written by Tanvi Kumar, a student at Fond du Lac High School.
The story has sparked a controversy at the school and beyond, but unfortunately it is not for how well it was written. It is mainly about because the principal and the superintendent had concerns about the story, and decided to enforce prior restraint on stories that will be published in the Cardinal Columns, the school newspaper.
UW Oshkosh journalism associate professor Vince Filak has been interviewed a couple of times regarding the controversy and feels passionate about it.
“This young lady did an incredible job of writing about an incredibly sensitive topic in an extremely restrained way and still gave people the facts they needed to be able to form an opinion, and to punish the newspaper for it is pretty gutless,” Filak said.
He said the story was well written and could be considered for a writing award.
“They really painstakingly wrote it and they put forth a piece that I think is an award-winning piece,” he said. “I think this could be a story of the year for high school publications.”
UWO law and ethics Professor Mike Cowling said students have freedom of speech so long as the stories published do not disrupt the educational process or are not considered to be obscene, indecent or vulgar.
“Court rulings have said that high school students have free speech rights,” Cowling said. “They can make political statements, they can do things as long as it’s not disruptive to the student environment.”
Cowling said school administrators, who are considered to be the publishers of most high school newspapers, have a legal right to determine what is acceptable and what is not for the publication.
“The top administrator is considered to be the publisher, as you would have at a newspaper, so he or she can say ‘we’re not going to run this’ and, in essence, have a right to do so,” Cowling said. He cited a United States Supreme Court ruling in the 1988 case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in which the justices said school-sponsored student publications can be censored for legitimate educational concerns.
Barb Benish, UWO adjunct instructor and executive secretary of the Northeastern Wisconsin Scholastic Press Association (NEWSPA), has added a session to the NEWSPA spring conference called “Prior Review: What to do if it Happens to You.” The session brings in the writer of the story and other members of the Cardinal Columns publication to talk about how they took a stand. Professor Cowling will also be there to discuss the legal aspects.
The students started a petition that generated about 4,500 signatures in a little more than a week.
Tell us your thoughts on the story, the reactions and how you think the situation will turn out.