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Students speak up for future

One after another, the nine teen-age scientists stood Tuesday night to be showered with applause from the School Board for the bushel of awards they had earned at state, national and even international science competitions. Each student thanked the administrators for creating a nurturing environment in school where the students and their teachers could chase their dreams. The results of that support were astounding.

Then the board meeting began and the love-in ended as a second group of students came forward to implore the board not to extinguish their fledgling journalistic careers by curtailing their freedom of speech.

Fears about a proposed student publications policy, which would shift ultimate responsibility for the content of the school paper from the editors to the principal, spurred the teens to action.

In sometimes trembling voices, the young editors pleaded for understanding. The word "censorship" came up repeatedly. They seemed to be asking, Why don't you trust us?

Thus began a spirited debate on the meaning of and reasons behind the new policy. School officials, with board member David Watson the most vocal, wondered what the fuss was all about.

Currently there are no guidelines for the publications, Watson said. The policy wouldn't stifle students, just give them and the administrators some direction.

Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick noted that the policy adheres to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on student press. He was among those who seemed genuinely unable to grasp the students' fears, which they chalked up to simple misunderstanding of the policy.

But if the students were confused, they weren't alone. Teachers, parents, working journalists and at least one board member all said they saw problems with the policy.

As the debate moved into its second hour, it became clear that the issue wasn't whether the administration legally could do what it proposed to do. The court already answered that.

The real question was why would it want to. The answer was that this is a backlash from events of previous years, when some in the administration felt stung by students' written or spoken comments.

In none of those incidents did a student violate the ground rules of free speech. The comments and articles were not libelous, obscene, factually incorrect or incendiary. They just made some people squirm.

Through the new policy, the message being sent was that these embarrassing moments will not happen again.

The student journalists, teachers and others pressed the point that, intended or not, the policy would result in thought control. And no matter how you dress it up, that's censorship.

Despite all of the boiling emotions, at no time did the comments get ugly or personal. Each speaker had his or her say and held up under crossfire.

By having the courage to challenge the board, the rulers of their scholastic universe, the students showed that they are poised, intelligent young adults. These were not immature children given to wild and irresponsible journalistic errors, the sorts of things that administrators sought to prevent with the new policy.

The students agreed that guidelines are needed; they even volunteered to help draw them up. But they insisted that the exercise be collaborative _ with the role of the student, the adviser and the principal clearly defined.

In the end, they carried the day. Some controversial language was struck from the policy, and a promise was made that the guidelines will consider their concerns.

The next afternoon, I met the real winners of the debate. At a luncheon for winners of the annual Times-sponsored Junior Journalist Club program, I sat among a dozen elementary and middle-school students, their parents and teachers.

Each youngster had submitted an essay and, as always with children of this age, their words were straight from the heart.

I realized as I reread their entertaining stories that these children will be affected most by the board's policy. How free will their writing be if they know their principal must approve it before publication?

The student editors at Tuesday's meeting are all near graduation; they challenged the board not so much for themselves as for those writers coming behind them.

I was proud of these teens for having the courage to speak up for their rights. I only hope that someday the fresh-faced youngsters at that luncheon remember to thank them.

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