Fabiola Santiago: Student journalists should be nurtured, not censored

04/25/2014 6:26 PM

04/25/2014 7:25 PM

Global warming may be causing sea levels to rise, but in Florida, the metaphorical sunshine is fading.

I remember brighter days.

In 1977, known as “The Year It Snowed in Miami” because we woke up to iced yards and windshields in January, the student newspaper at Hialeah High School published a project on “human sexuality.”

A group of us, editors of The Record, surveyed the student body about practices and beliefs and ran the results along with our interviews with key players in the state’s raging debate over gay rights — Bob Kunst and Anita Bryant.

By the time the principal found out, the edition was ready to go to print. He summoned our journalism teacher, but at the end of their debate about our First Amendment rights, he asked only that we remove two words from an article: oral sex. We chuckled, complied, and our newspaper went on to win top state awards that year.

Most importantly, the entire exercise was an essential component of our education.

We weren’t outrageously censored as has been the case of Lakeland High School senior Abby Laine, who didn’t even get to write her story. Her teacher and school administrators quashed the mere idea of her writing for the student magazine, Bagpipe, about a less controversial topic than ours — the medical use of marijuana, especially timely given the legalization question before voters this fall.

Laine told The Lakeland Ledger that she wasn’t planning to take a position in her story. She wanted to do what any good reporter does: Gather information from a variety of sources. She planned to interview students who have epilepsy and their parents to find out how the legalization of medical marijuana may affect their lives, and sought out experts, including a government teacher and a legalization advocate.

But her journalism teacher, Janell Marmon, who also censored another student’s idea to write about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, outright vetoed the topic with the support of Principal Arthur Martinez. The director of the school’s Multimedia Communications Academy, Frank Webster, took the bad decision a step further by describing journalism as a “marketing tool” and the magazine as a “mouthpiece” for the school. How can someone who thinks that way be in charge of a communications school?

So much for getting a quality education that promotes critical thinking, thorough research, and the entrepreneurial spirit. And if — in the age of split-second availability and ready-made information — an educator’s idea of keeping kids safe from cigarettes or drugs is censorship and darkness, we’re all in for a rough ride into the future.

Unfortunately, the lack of valor of these educators is not a fluke but a byproduct of the politicization of Florida’s education system by the ideologues that run the state.

What else can one expect when legislators are intent on weakening Florida’s public records laws instead of strengthening them, when, without educational expertise, they want to legislate what happens in the classroom?

Their patriarchal, patronizing morality is suffocating — and it hurts engaged, bright students like Laine, who see beyond the rigidity of provincial spaces.

From their high school education, students deserve better than an exercise in stifled speech and cowardice.

About Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago

@fabiolasantiago

Fabiola Santiago was born in Cuba. She was exiled to the U.S. in 1969 on one of the historic Freedom Flights. She has been a Herald reporter and editor since 1980.

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