Journalists at The Hellgate Lance, the Hellgate High School newspaper, are sticking by their First Amendment rights despite a barrage of criticism during the recent school year.
Last spring, the Coalition for Community Responsibility (CCR), a local 500-member religious nonprofit organization, attacked The Lance, a student-run publication. CCR representatives said content and language in three stories were inappropriate for high-school-age students. In response, a Missoula County Public School board committee requested all its high schools to submit publication policies to the committee.
The Lance staff recently did so. The guidelines, modeled after the guidelines of a professional newspaper association, grant advisers authority to read editions before publication to “offer a point of view for consideration.” Final editorial control, however, lies with the student journalists: “The [student] editor-in-chief has final authority to determine the material published in The Lance.”
Superintendent Jim Clark says that high schools’ publication policies will not be subjected to a review or approval process by the board. Rather, the high school newspaper staff has fulfilled its obligations by having written or updated publication policies and submitted them as requested.
Hellgate Principal Jane Bennett supports The Lance’s publication guidelines and believes students don’t shed constitutional protections when they set foot on campus.
“I realize they are young and relatively inexperienced journalists and might make an error in judgement,” says Bennett. “I believe that is all part of the educational process.”
CCR representatives have not been in contact with the district since registering their criticisms last year, says Clark. A CCR co-executive-director did not return a call for comment.
If CCR representatives do raise concerns again, Lance managing editor Laci Cox says she is willing to talk with them. She, too, is a Christian, and has no interest in stifling The Lance’s voice, nor the religious voice.
“I don’t think they realize that if they suppress our voice, their religious voice might be suppressed, too,” says Cox, a Hellgate junior.