Fix This.

Next Year’s Editors and the Administration Need to Work Toward a Free “Weekly”

The Latin School of Chicago. The University of Chicago Laboratory School. The Francis Parker School in San Diego. All of these independent schools that you’ve heard of––some progressive and others not––enjoy a free, uncensored student press.

Parker, on the other hand, has made it very clear our embryonic democracy does not allow for open student discourse.

Before the publication of each issue this year, my co-editors and I have had to sit down with Head of Upper School Justin Brandon and Dean of Student Life Joe Bruno. The two must approve of every single piece of “Weekly” content, and have final say on all disputed matters. If the administration wants something changed, we often have no choice but to comply. This practice is known as prior restraint.

As I’ve written time and time again over the past two years, these are not the actions of a true progressive administration. A school that respects and values its student voice doesn’t take every measure to stifle it.

Further, prior restraint isn’t the only restriction administrators have placed on “The Weekly.” Earlier this year, the administration prohibited us from releasing the paper on Fridays and before breaks–– most of our usual printing schedule.

We were informed of this change in the middle of our second publication cycle. There was no warning and no immediate impetus for the change, and we were not left with enough time to make the necessary accommodations to print three days early. We asked for a one-time exception, and it wasn’t allowed.

I hold every word that we print in each issue of “The Weekly” close to my heart. My co-editors and I devote hours each month to managing a staff of 40 people, writing quality journalism, and training new writers. “The Weekly” has never been just another extracurricular to me––I’ve poured myself into producing a paper that makes a difference in this community.

I’ve never felt as helpless as I did after asking for that one-time exception. Walking out of the room, I felt the administration had made it clear they didn’t care if we had a paper to share. For as long as I can remember, I’ve read a copy of “The Weekly” at County Fair. Before I’d ever written an article, I knew I could find the paper lying in stacks in the courtyard after 11:30. But the impossibility of moving our deadlines up three days didn’t faze the administration: the paper, which would still be read and approved of, was not to be distributed at County Fair. Just because they said so.

This was by no means my first difficult conversation with an administrator. It was, however, the first I left crying. That night, I didn’t do my homework; I went to sleep right after forcing down dinner. After six months of prior restraint and patronizing censorship, the realization that the administration didn’t value our work is what hurt me the most.

My disappointment is only worsened by what I feel is an absolute lack of justification for these strict regulations. When I asked for an explanation, Brandon cited issues that occurred on a “Weekly” under a different editorial board faculty advisor. When I explained that none of the people involved in those mistakes currently served on the paper’s staff, he said there are often legal and HR issues we wouldn’t understand.

For my first six months as editor-in-chief, we were required to report all potentially controversial articles to the administration. The policy changed to a full review last spring, and we were never given an explicit reason as to why. I felt––and I still feel––that we were owed an honest and straightforward explanation.

I can only assume that the administration instituted full prior review after our Issue 9 editorial “Hear Us.” The article heavily criticized members of the administration for their treatment of a group of freshman girls who reported sexual harassment, but I was confident there were no legal issues with the piece. A lawyer from the Student Press Law Center read the article and worked with us to minimize potential problems.

We took the initiative to reach out to a lawyer to ensure the paper and the school would not come under fire. We took our responsibility as journalists, editors, and concerned students seriously, and did our best to safely support the freshman girls. In response, the administration told us they’d be reading every word in the paper from then on out.

We’ve also repeatedly asked for the opportunity to meet with the Director of Human Resources, Laureen Sweers, and we’ve never been able to.

A year later, things have not improved. In February, the administration abruptly decided we couldn’t publish on Fridays or before breaks, even if we’d put out the paper ahead of time.

We were informed by email. Brandon explained a parent had come to him to discuss a complaint after the distribution of a previous issue, and he wanted to eliminate the possibility he’d have to meet with parents right before school breaks. So, “Weeklys” were no longer to be distributed according to beloved tradition.

Brandon should have redirected a “Weekly” related complaint to us and our faculty advisors. Complaints are a learning opportunity and a good lesson in reporting responsibly and interacting with readers. If “The Weekly” had a free student press, Brandon would have no reason to meet with the parent.

This particular complaint also did not come as a result of a mistake within the issue. My co-editors and I should not have done anything differently. Still, we could no longer distribute per tradition. We were not given the opportunity to negotiate. Our hard work was no match for a parent’s unavoidable objection. The rule was the rule.

Understand how degrading it is to be told what the paper will say, when it will be distributed, and how it will be distributed. The implication is that we don’t know how to run our paper, and, without any explanation, we should trust the administration’s regulations and we shouldn’t complain.

When I was appointed editor-in-chief at the end of my sophomore year, I was honored to have been trusted with what I felt was a great responsibility to inform the student body. At the end of my senior year, “The Weekly” has been stripped of almost all of its autonomy. I feel no awesome sense of duty––just an obligation to get the paper out.

I’m no longer unreasonably excited to edit second drafts and construct layout. Instead, I’m stressed about what the administration will approve and what they won’t. I’m worried if they have too many changes, we won’t be able to print according to schedule. I’m no longer excited when Nick Saracino republishes our work in “This Week at Parker.” I remember all of the articles the administration chose not to advertise.

In my time on “The Weekly,” I have argued repeatedly for an independent student press. It teaches ethical and responsible journalism. It is aligned with our purpose as a progressive school. It allows us to address and learn from our own mistakes. It separates the school and the paper, meaning the school is not legally responsible for work in the paper. (Also, you get an award from the National Student Press Association.)

Over the past four years, it has become clear to me that those reasons are not enough for Parker’s administration. A potential lawsuit is far more important than our mission statement or the education of “The Weekly” staff.

To the administration: If trust between the paper and administration is required for ending prior restraint, you are also responsible for building it. Recognize that trust doesn’t mean the administration is not criticized.

Next year, please explain every restriction you enact to next year’s editors-in-chief. They deserve that. And, they deserve a free and open press. Many of our peer institutions operate without issue alongside a free and responsible student press… why can’t we?

To “The Weekly”’s 2020-21 Editors: Do not compromise the power of journalism to avoid censorship. Don’t be afraid to comment on the things you don’t like in the building, and call out the people in charge when you need to. Handle the fallout of your risky articles with grace.

Do what we couldn’t, and fix this. It’s a huge victory that our website is now open to the public, but it is not enough. The students at Parker deserve to read a paper written and edited by their fellow students––not filtered through by administrators.