Letter to the Editor: Social Studies Instructor Responds to Wired Editorial


Westside Social Studies Instructor Derek Fey responds to a Westside Wired editorial published on Feb. 17.

Let me start by saying that the online content produced by Westside journalism is impressive. As a former writer for the Lance, I would never have imagined that such an eye-catching and professional-looking site could be produced by students. The online content is quite striking and a tip of the hat to all those students that put in the time and effort – having been in that arena, I’m well aware of the sacrifices that go into journalism.

This letter-to-the-editor is in response to a Westside Wired response to Superintendent Mike Lucas’ response to Westside journalism’s response to Westside administration’s decision to enforce prior review. Confused? Good.

Let’s not get this confused: Westside journalism is not the New York Times. It’s not the Omaha World-Herald. It isn’t and shouldn’t be treated as such. The U.S. Supreme Court decided this in 1988 in the landmark decision from Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. From that case: “The First Amendment rights of student journalists are not violated when school officials prevent the publication of certain articles in the school newspaper.” That really should be the end of the argument. Period. But there are so many things to unpack from the editorial so I’ll continue.

After reading the Wired editorial, it appears as though the journalism staff actually views itself as a professional news organization (not to generalize the entire department, but this was an editorial representing the staff). So, let’s use that for an analogy. Professional news organizations have editors – all sorts of them. My father was a copy editor for the World-Herald for 20 years, and I wrote sports stories as well as for the Living Department of the World-Herald for a year, so I’m deeply aware of the process. There are several copy editors in each department that change stories, as well as editors of each section. At the top of those editors is the editor-in-chief deciding what goes in the paper and what will not. However, the publisher can step in at any time in the process and decide not to print a story.

In Westside’s case, think of the journalism advisors as editors-in-chief, and the administration as the publisher. Why? Because there is a lot more at stake at the high school level. I wrote for the Lance in the late 1990s, and was a managing editor my senior year. There was an incident during my time at the Lance where a dummy sidebar was written about the swim team(meaning it was a placeholder on the page – for all of you non-journalists reading). One of the members was given a nickname which included the word sodomy. Why? Because that’s what high school students do. The story went through because the student editors all missed it, including the writer, the managing and editors-in-chief. The advisor missed it. The family of the swimmer was rightfully upset. Who gets sued in that situation? It would not be the students. Not even the advisor. The school district gets sued. And the reason for that is that high school publications are not professional. They are not, nor should they be treated as such by law or in courtrooms.

As a further example, in 2007, an article appeared in the Benson school newspaper that included the use of the “N-word” in its full form. Numerous times through a four-page spread. Who ended up getting punished for letting that article get published? Not the students or the advisor. The principal was suspended and her status as principal was in jeopardy. High school publications come with very real world consequences, but not for the students. Another reason that prior review is needed for student publications.

The editorial references a demeaning hashtag that was found in Westside Wired’s Twitter account. It states that the hashtag was deleted within an hour and it was resolved. The editorial also states that the student journalists are “trained” and the words “award-winning” are scattered throughout. Maybe it isn’t being taught anymore, but the most basic understanding of online media is that once something is put online, it is permanent. Just because the hashtag was deleted does not mean it disappeared. One has to look no further than the numerous people being fired for online content they posted years, and even, decades ago. And again, as stated above, the school district is liable for the student journalists failing to do their job, not the students. Again, proving the need for prior review.

Finally, the editorial includes the ethical guidelines and conduct of the journalism department which states “it is the responsibility of [Westside] publications to cover school, city, state, national and international events and issues that affect or concern the campus, its students or its readers in a non-bias method.” This was included to prove that an inflammatory story would never be published. To suggest that no inflammatory story has ever been published by the journalism department or that the mechanisms in place by the department (again, made up of high school students) are a fail-safe way of making sure inappropriate content doesn’t get through, simply doesn’t work in a public high school environment. One in which the school district, including its administrators, are liable for the content produced, and not the students.

It was suggested at the end of the editorial that if Westside administration truly cared about the journalism department, they would allow it to publish content as a public forum for student expression. I would argue that by enforcing the prior review policy, Westside administration is making sure that the journalism department can continue publishing articles by giving a final layer of oversight.

The Westside journalism department has won many awards. And as an alumnus of that program under a great advisor in Rod Howe, there is a level of pride that comes with that. I learned a lot from that experience. It allowed me to become the editor-in-chief of my college newspaper and then to briefly work as a writer for the Omaha World-Herald. But not for one second did I consider what we were producing at Westside to be professional in any form, nor did I expect no administrative oversight, even if it wasn’t used at the time.


To read the editorial this letter is in response to, click here.

To read the Westside Journalism Letter to the Editor policy, click here.