Analysis: What the Evanstonian confiscation shows about the difficulty of high school media

Lars Lonnroth, Assistant News Editor

The Evanstonian Newspaper looks like any other high school newspaper—and to some extent, it is. The student journalists cover the doings of Evanston Township High School (ETHS) and stories that matter to students: extracurricular activities, sports and anything else that students care about.

One of the topics that students care about, Evanstonian editors say, is the usage of marijuana. Since the editors thought it was pertinent to ETHS students, they covered the story in their Sept. 22 issue.

But the paper itself was thrown into the headlines after that two-page section on marijuana led to the confiscation of their paper at the hands of the school administration, who claimed that the spread encouraged drug use.

Eventually, administrators gave in and allowed the student journalists to redistribute their paper on Nov. 5, almost two months after the paper was confiscated.

The student’s vociferous opposition to the confiscation played a large role in getting the paper redistributed. Members of the Evanstonian brought lawyers to the district’s Oct. 5 board of education meeting, claiming that school officials overstepped their bounds and—potentially—broke the law.

Censoring school publications is illegal in Illinois by the 2016 Illinois Public Act, which ETHS may of violated with The Evanstonian. With the redistribution of the paper, however, it appears this incident has been brought to a close.

But Evanston Township High School’s actions on that September day highlights the difficult predicament high school media organizations can find themselves in.

Even if censorship is prohibited by law, it can be sometimes be difficult to prove its occurrence in court, student press lawyers say. In most high school media, the ability to operate is usually contingent upon the financial backing of the schools that they are covering. With that control, that gives administration many potential routes to control a paper’s content.

Mike Hiestand, a lawyer for the Student Press Law Center, said the bar to determine if an incident is censorship is in whether or not the actions were a result of coverage. Oftentimes, it can be difficult to prove if a school’s actions constitute censorship as it is an issue of determining motivation.

“School officials are clever; they are savvy as far as the law goes,” he said. “They can come up with all sorts of subterfuge and other reasons for engaging in the censorship.”

However, according to Hiestand, in many cases school officials “are very blatant about their unhappiness with the paper” and so in many situations it is not.

In the case of the Evanstonian, the nuance is in whether or not the coverage on marijuana would “incite other students to go out and hit the bong,” which Hiestand doesn’t buy.

“I think it is a stretch,” he said. “It has to be very immediate. The incite standard has to be more than just persuading and suggesting, it really is they read this article and I’m going out to buy a bong.”

The newspaper staff said the situation left them wondering how to go forward post-confiscation, which has an impact on how the journalists make decisions regarding their journalism.

“The administration has cited the vague reason of legal concerns, but has provided no evidence to back those claims,” an editorial by the Evanstonian said. “We as a staff were left confused, concerned and wary of censorship moving into this next issue.”

But the editorial underscores the fact that censorship can be more than just the confiscation of a piece of journalistic work. Oftentimes, the most harmful censorship is the fear of censorship itself.

Censorship can be an overt move where journalism is physically taken, as is the case with the Evanstonian incident. In other cases, it can be more subdued, like if a school’s principal approaches a reporter asking them to “rethink” the publication of a story.

Both incidents would be censorship, but whether subtle censorship would be deemed permissible in the court of law is yet to be seen.

In the case of the Evanstonian incident, although the students were allowed to redistribute—albeit with added information about the harms of marijuana—the fear of a brouhaha like this occurring again could make editors think twice about tackling a difficult subject involving drug use or any difficult subject for that matter.

This has a name in journalistic circles: the chilling effect.

The chilling effect is a problem of the journalist’s own creation. An editor or reporter asks “is the publication of this story worth the potential repercussions?” and crush a newsworthy story because they don’t think it is worth the potential blowback.

In the United States, the press is free—it is enumerated in the Constitution—but a press totally free of all censorship is something that cannot be achieved.

There will always be a fear of whether or not a source will talk to a reporter if they run a story that is semi-critical, or whether the public will act indignant if a paper covers a certain story.

There are countless potential scenarios where the publication of an article could cause problems for the publication—and countless scenarios where editors could take steps to eschew those problems by resorting to censorship themselves.

In student journalism, these same problems that professional publications grapple with are exacerbated. If an administration doesn’t like a story, funding for that paper could be rescinded. For student journalists outside of Illinois, that is a major issue to consider.

Censorship is a tough issue to tackle, especially if there could be potential repercussions or backlash if a story is published.

In 2012, the gossip site Gawker published a video showing the wrestler Hulk Hogan engaging in private activity with one of his friend’s wife. Hogan sued, won $31 million and ended up taking down Gawker, making the publication close its doors and leaving its founder bankrupt.

If you don’t think the editor of another publication would fear the prospect of that happening to their publication, you are quite mistaken.

In the Evanston’s situation, they accepted the censorship by adding the warnings regarding drug use when they redistributed their paper. But Heistand, the press lawyer, said getting the student’s content out is more important than engaging in a prolonged legal battle.

“One of my biggest piece of advice to students in these kind of battles is that you have to pick your battles carefully,” Heinstand said. “The fact that the school agreed reasonably quickly agreed to reprint the issue, is something that certainly weighs on the issue of letting this go.”