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High school newspaper faces possible censorship challenge


Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert
Nov. 30, 2001
Vol. 7; No. 1

Al Cross, SPJ president, across@spj.org or 502/648-8433; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, ian@kpax.com or 406/542-4400; Charles Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee co-chairman, daviscn@missouri.edu or (573) 882-5736

One of America's most decorated high school newspapers, the Register of Omaha Central High in Omaha, Neb., faces a showdown with censorious district officials and school administrators. Their crime? Committing journalism -- excellent, award-winning journalism.

High school journalists operate in an environment in which censorship is tolerated, and often encouraged, thanks to a U. S. Supreme Court decision. The Register has avoided such censorship, largely because its quality and professionalism have made its readers and school officials respect its independence. Arguably the most highly honored student newspaper in America, the Register has earned dozens upon dozens of awards from peers and from professional judges for excellence in reporting, design and editing.

So why would the school suddenly turn on its star newspaper?

Football, of course.

On Oct. 31, 2001, the Register's front-page headline read "Athlete plays despite assault charges." The story told of a starting linebacker's playing five games despite violating the district's eligibility rules. The linebacker faced two assault charges against a female student.

"This is a predator. And he will continue to be a predator," City Prosecutor Mike Winchester told the Register.

At no time did the player, the player's family or school officials allege that any portion of the story was false. After the Register investigation -- weeks after school officials knew of the assaults, one of which was reported by the high school's nurse -- administrators removed the player from the team. Then they turned on the newspaper.

A series of increasingly threatening gestures by school principal Dr. Gary Thompson has led to a Dec. 7 meeting featuring the newspaper adviser, Matt Deabler, Dr. Thompson and Renae Kehrberg, the head of secondary education for Omaha Public Schools.

The newspaper staff fears that the purpose of this meeting is to discredit the Register and redefine the purpose of journalism in Omaha Public Schools to more closely reflect public relations. Prior review, prior restraint and further means of censoring the paper are all very real topics for this meeting.

As evidence against the Register, officials cite letters and phone calls complaining about the newspaper's coverage. What the Register needs is evidence to the contrary, collected form journalists who care about freedom of the press.

To that end, SPJ is calling upon members to write letters of support for these young journalists. It is my hope that the adviser will be able to attend this meeting with a large collection of letters supporting high school journalism.

Letters can focus on three areas of contention:

1) The educational value of the newspaper. Student journalists use what they learn in
college and in their professional lives.

2) Unbelievably, opponents of the newspaper complain that its content is unlike a lot of other high school papers: it is simply too much like "real" journalism. Recent issues have run stories on a student's meth use, a lawsuit against the district, drug courts, and a story memorializing an alumnus who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

3) Letters can emphasize that under the Supreme Court decision, high-school officials cannot restrict journalistic content unless such restriction reflect legitimate pedagogical concerns. Doing good work and breaking important stories are not legitimate pedagogical concerns.
If you would like a copy of the Register before you write, please send an e-mail with your name and address to register@ops.org. If you have questions, feel free to give editor Matt Wynn a call at (402) 557-3357. Principal Thompson is available at (402) 557-3310.

Your help is greatly appreciated. Hopefully, we can stop this foolishness before it gets out of control.

Dr. Gary Thompson
Central High School
124 N. 20th St.
Omaha, NE 68102

Matt Deabler
Journalism Adviser
Central High School
124 N. 20th St.
Omaha, NE 68102

Copy letters to:
Matt Wynn
Editor, The Register
5315 Jackson Street
Omaha, NE 68106


* A Pacemaker at the Journalism Education Association
* A First Place, Best in Show, Large Newspaper category
* A First Place, Best In Show for a specialty news publications.
* The paper's magazine came in sixth in the newsmagazine division -- the first year the staff has published one.

UNO Metro Area Journalism Competition
The Register - First Place Best Paper
The Register - Second Place Sweepstakes
Joe Meyer - First Place News
Matt Wynn - First Place Best In-Depth
Michael Gerhardt - First Place Best Review
Quentin Lueninghoener - First, Second and Third Place Best Original Art
Michael Gerhardt - First Place, Best Front Page

State Preliminaries
Matt Wynn - First Place Layout
Troy Schulte - First Place Sports Feature
Doug Meigs - Second Place Editorial Cartoon
Danielle Rollins - Second Place Layout
Joe Meyer - Second Place News
Matt Wynn - Second Place Graphic Design
Michael Gerhardt - Third Place Layout
Emily Neumann - Third Place Black-and-White Photography
Matt Wynn - Fifth Place - In-Depth Coverage
Michael Gerhardt - Qualified for Column
Joe Meyer - Qualified for Sports News
Michael Gerhardt - Qualified for Review

State Finals
The Register - Best Newspaper Sweepstakes Winner
Quentin Lueninghoener - Gold Medal Graphic Design
Matt Wynn - Silver Medal Layout
Matt Wynn - Silver Medal Graphic Design
Paula Salhany, Lydia Coleman, Danielle Rollins, Quentin Lueninghoener -
Silver Medal In-Depth Coverage
Emily Neumann - Bronze Medal Black-and-White Photography

Quill and Scroll International Competition
Michael Gerhardt - First Place Best Review
Layne Gabriel - First Place Best Entertainment Column
Troy Schulte - First Place Best Sports Story
Matt Wynn - First Place Best Feature
Matt Wynn - First Place Best Feature (2)
Quentin Lueninghoener, Danielle Rollins and Jenny Nelson - First Place Best
Team In-Depth

UNK State Journalism Competition
The Register - First Place Best Newspaper
Michael Gerhardt - First Place Breaking News
Joe Meyer - First Place Feature Photo
Matt Wynn - First Place Best Front Page
Matt Wynn - First Place Best Feature
Emily Neumann - First Place Best News Photo
Emily Neumann - First Place Best Sports Photo
Sarah Peterson - Second Place General News
Michael Gerhardt - Second Place Breaking News
Sarah Peterson - Third Place Best Feature
Joe Meyer - Third Place Breaking News
Chris Aponick - Third Place Sports News
Chris Aponick - Third Place Sports Feature
Matt Wynn - Third Place Layout
Matt Wynn - Third Place Editorial
Emily Neumann - Third Place Feature Photo
Faith Lynn - Third Place News Photo

Creighton Metro Area Journalism Competition
Layne Gabriel - First Place Best Headline
Joe Meyer - First Place Best News Story
Matt Wynn - Second Place Front Page
Matt Wynn - Second Place Best Feature
Michael Gerhardt - Third Place Best Writing
Joe Meyer - Third Place Best Photo
Troy Schulte - Fourth Place Best Sports Story

Nebraska Press Women Journalism Competition
Quentin Lueninghoener - First Place Graphics
Matt Wynn - First Place Column
Doug Meigs - Second Place Best Cartoon
Matt Wynn - Third Place Editorial
Matt Wynn - Third Place Graphics
Layne Gabriel - Third Place Review
Quentin Lueninghoener - Fourth Place Single-Page Layout
Michael Gerhardt - Fourth Place Sports Writing
Michael Gerhardt - Fourth Place Column Writing
Emily Neumann - Fourth Place Feature Photo
Joe Meyer - Fourth Place Editorial
Danielle Rollins - Fourth Place Feature Writing

The adviser, Matt Deabler, qualified for a certificate of Merit from the Dow Jones
Newspaper Fund. He also won the Buffett award, a local award for excellence in education.


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The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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