BY JESSICA SHERWIN
Reading about censorship and experiencing it firsthand are two very different things, as Fond du Lac students found out in February when they published an issue of their student magazine, Cardinal Columns, containing a controversial story titled “The Rape Joke.” The story focused on three girls’ experiences with sexual assault, delving into the mental toll it took on them and the healing process each of them went through. “The Rape Joke” raised questions of how our society perceives and reacts to sexual assault, and was followed by a short editorial revolving around students’ use of the subject of rape in a joking or teasing manner.
Roughly three weeks after the publication of the February issue, the principal and superintendent of the Fond du Lac district contacted adviser Matt Smith, to inform him of a new policy they were implementing that gave both the principal and superintendent rights to prior review.
Yesterday Smith came to KEMPA summer journalism workshop as a keynote speaker for adviser day. He talked about his experience, from the publication of the February issue to the development of a policy that reclaims the Cardinal Columns’ public forum status.
“The goal would be to have a policy in place where there is no prior review, where the students are working with their adviser, through the journalism standards we learn in class, to put out the product they think is best,” Smith said.
The school board appointed a committee, consisting of students and staff members, to create an entirely new policy to replace the policy put into place by the principal and superintendent. The original policy before the controversial February issue had been in place since 1988, after the resolution of the renowned Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case.
“We’re still in discussions about things. The committee put together a policy that we think is best for the publication. At this point we met with the school board to explain it to them… we’re still hoping that more communication will lead to something we can all live with.”
Sandy Jacoby, president of KEMPA and state director of Wisconsin Journalism Education Association, and Linda Barrington, executive director of KEMPA and co-founder of the JEA Mentoring Program began attending Fond du Lac school board meetings in March to show their support for Smith and the Cardinal Columns.
“We were able to state unequivocally the support for Matt and for the students,” Jacoby said. “More than anything we were supporting their first amendment rights, their ability to avoid prior review at that time, and then later prior restraint.”
To further their support, Jacoby and Barrington helped Smith get in touch with sources such as Mary Beth Tinker, the Student Press Law Center, and JEA’s student press law center, the Scholastic Press Rights Commission. Jacoby also provided Smith with the McCormick protocol that outlines the dynamics of ethical practice and journalistic independence.
“I felt very passionate about the topic…there were so many people who felt strongly about it,” Jacoby said. “For the board to be censoring this was unthinkable.”
For the past five months Cardinal Columns staff members took action, speaking at school board meetings and getting interviewed by the professional press. However, during this time the policy employing prior review has been in effect—and the publication has felt the repercussions of this.
The Cardinal Columns April issue was over a month late due to 6 items being censored, and the May issue was delayed over a week due to roughly 9 items being censored. The magazine sells for 25 cents, and the Cardinal Columns sold out the two issues following the February edition.
“As far as I’m concerned they’ve been highly successful,” Jacoby said. “They have not yet reached their ultimate goal, which is the declaration of the newspaper, The Cardinal Columns, as a public forum… there are positive directions for action where it still provides an excellent learning opportunity for students to learn about first amendment rights.”
The staff members created an online petition via change.org that reached 5,000 signatures as of four months ago. The petition is addressed to “Dr. James Sebert,” the superintendent, and asks viewers to “please sign the petition and help put an end to the arbitrary censorship of students.” The site displays recent signatures, and the latest was July 19.
“I know we are sponsored by the school, but we identify ourselves as a public forum which means we are open to the general use and to the public,” said Tanvi Kumar, author of “The Rape Joke” in an interview on March 13 with WBAY-TV, a local news station.
The school board appointed committee’s fight isn’t over. They hope to one year trial run implementation of the policy they created to prove its validity.
“How you create a sense of community is by grappling with difficult issues like rape,” Jacoby said. “That acknowledging that things are not perfect, that there is a community harm. Perhaps you bring stakeholders together, they talk about it and you carve out solutions. His students felt that the paper should be a way of creating community. His students, by their tenacity, have proven themselves.”
The authors of these news and announcements are KEMPA staff members. We appreciate you reading and engaging with our site.