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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2008

A lesson lost

HIGH school administrators have plenty of challenges with budgets, curriculum, teachers, and students to corral without appearing to be unable to keep their affairs under control.

That must be why the administration at Shasta High School in Redding, Calif., came down so hard on the student newspaper for running a front-page photo of a student burning an American flag and an editorial defending the protest as free speech.

Otherwise, the decision to eliminate the publication at the end of the school year would seem to be a gross overreaction to a perfectly reasonable treatment of flag burning as a free speech issue protected by the First Amendment. Certainly, if only as an educational activity to promote debate among students about a matter frequently contested in public, the publication had merit.

Principal Milan Woollard decided that the final issue of the student-run paper was embarrassing, suggesting that he either feared a backlash because of the emotions flag burning evokes, or that he misunderstands the ripe learning opportunity that arises naturally from examining the parameters of First Amendment rights. Either way, it is unfortunate because such actions send a clear message to students to be fearful of expressing a viewpoint in their newspaper that might discomfit those in authority.

Even if such censorship is on solid legal ground - courts have upheld the power of school administrators to limit student publications - it tells young people not to think for themselves lest they upset someone and face punishment for having a "wrong" opinion.

Connor Kennedy, the paper's editor-in-chief, wrote the flag-burning editorial after studying the controversy in a government class. He says he was "deeply saddened" by the publication's demise and noted how "terribly ironic" it was that a high school newspaper would be shut down for exercising free speech "particularly when the curriculum being taught was that this was free speech."

Still, the principal, who is under no legal obligation to spend money on school newspapers or elective journalism classes, insists dropping the paper was always a budget option.

What cemented his decision to pull funding from the paper, he added, was the students' decision to showcase flag burning.

So there. It's not the first time high school or college administrators have censored student-run newspapers or punished those who oversee them and it certainly won't be the last.

But it's a self-defeating way to teach young people about freedom of expression and is a lost chance to enhance their education.

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