Administrators censor episode of The Mane in violation of state law

Administrators censored last weeks episode of The Mane over images of alcohol in a review of local restaurant.

Kennedy Homan

Administrators censored last week’s episode of The Mane over images of alcohol in a review of local restaurant.

The episode of The Mane that aired yesterday was one story shorter than planned. The Metea Valley administrative team censored a segment about a local family restaurant over concerns about footage containing bottles of alcohol behind the bar inside the restaurant. Censorship of student journalism is illegal under most conditions in Illinois.

The segment in question was a review of the new local restaurant and bar Vai’s. The piece was produced by seniors and Mane staffers Triya Mahapatra and Laurel Westphal for The Mane. The segment included interviews with the owners about the restaurant and its origin. Footage containing alcohol appeared twice in the episode, totaling eight seconds of the one minute and 38-second segment.

The Mane staff originally intended for the episode to air last Friday, Sept. 30, but school administrators halted the broadcast until The Mane staff complied with administration’s demands to either remove the restaurant review entirely or to replace the footage of alcohol with other footage.

An unknown member of the Metea administrative team made the decision late on Thursday night to not broadcast the episode as scheduled the next day.

“Around 10:30 PM on Thursday night they sent an email to Kathy Wonsowski, [Nicholas] Grijalva, and Nate [Burleyson] just because he has a position in the class.  Nate informed the media students in a group chat that we have, and they actually talked about it Friday during class,” Mahapatra said. Wonsowski sent the email to Grijalva and Burleyson after being informed by administrators. 

According to Kathy Wonsowski, department chair for business, technology, engineering, and FACS, principal Dr. Darrell Echols approves all episodes of The Mane before they are broadcast. “They were questioning a story just to make sure that we were showing for the right audience,” Wonsowski said. “The issue was dealing with the audience and, ‘Are we representing Metea L.I.F.E.?’”

Echols reviewed the segment earlier this week before finalizing the decision that the segment would need to be edited or removed from the episode. “There were some gratuitous shots of the bar, bottles of alcohol, drinks being mixed, and drinks being poured,” Echols said. “We felt that it was not in line with our school philosophy and our district philosophy because the students that we serve are ages 14 to 18 and not of drinking age. We didn’t feel that part needed to be accentuated in that video, and so we asked them to edit that.”

Administrative censorship of student media is illegal in Illinois, with narrow exceptions. The Illinois Speech Rights of Student Journalists act, signed into law in 2016, prohibits censorship of any Illinois public high school sponsored media produced by student journalists, with exceptions for material that is libelous, obscene, depicting illegal activity, or encouraging illegal activity. While the act does allow for administrators to review material prior to release, it prohibits them from limiting it.

Mike Hiestand, senior legal consultant at the Student Press Law Center, believes that students had the right to publish the segment without removing the footage featuring bottles of alcohol.  

“I don’t see how there is any way that anybody could claim that simply by showing restaurant employees doing their jobs in a business that is a family restaurant that happens to contain a bar where you serve alcohol advocates unlawful drinking,” Hiestand said. “It’s crazy and illegal.”

Although print and broadcast journalism are equally protected under the law, administrators are more involved in approving the content of The Mane. “We have a huge limit as to what we can show. Everything has to be approved. If a student were to talk about drunk driving on The Mane, they would have to get school administration in on that and have them approve that,” Mahapatra said.

The Vai’s segment was not in yesterday’s Mane and will be edited to remove the footage with alcohol bottles and released later.

“I didn’t censor anything. You may call it censorship. I don’t. I call it maintaining the integrity of our programs to make sure they’re in line with our school handbook, which talks specifically about alcohol and the display of alcohol,” Echols said.

The Metea Valley student handbook prohibits the use of alcohol and drugs or associated paraphernalia on page 20. It prohibits clothing or jewelry depicting alcohol or drugs on page 28.

“I guess if they feel this way they really do need to go circling through the library, circling through classrooms ripping out pages and censoring videos. Anything that has any sort of depictions of alcohol in any context. Are we really that naive to think that a student can’t see a picture of a bottle of vodka and not be able to move on past that?” Hiestand said.

The students who made the segment feel frustrated that they are so limited.

“I think it’s ridiculously stupid that we can’t show that because not once are we affiliating with the alcohol. No one was using it. No one was touching it. It was just kind of in the shot,” Mahapatra said. “We can’t ask them to move all the alcohol bottles from the bar. I just think it’s really stupid that we can’t even have that on screen without doubting that students won’t take it the wrong way.”