Free and open? [Editorial]

The Aegis

Across many generations, aspiring journalists have been encouraged to read the words of the 17th century British poet, philosopher and political commentator John Milton:

“Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Those words are contained in a tome called “Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England,” published in 1644.

As the lengthy title implies, the speech was about censorship, or the ability to censor, in this case that could be imposed by government exercising its taxing authority on publications.

Over the ensuing 373 years, Milton’s words have become a kind of journalistic touchstone on the importance of a supposedly free and unfettered press. While much obviously has changed since Milton’s time – particularly when it comes to delivering thoughts through the written and spoken word – the debate about what constitutes free expression and how much it should be protected remains as fueled today as it was in 1644 during the English Civil War.

Which brings us to the recent and apparent abrupt removal of the adviser, or moderator, for The Patriot, the student newspaper at the private, Catholic John Carroll School in Bel Air. As reported by Aegis staff member Erika Butler, moderator Mark Ionescu was told Jan. 2 by principal Tom Durkin that another faculty member would begin overseeing the newspaper and its award-winning website at the beginning of the second semester in mid-January.

The replacement of Ionescu, who continues to teach honors English at John Carroll, has touched off a howl of protest from some current members of The Patriot staff and some former members, now alumni, who think the removal was based on the school administration’s unhappiness with content that appeared in newspaper.

Durkin, who is in his first year at John Carroll, as is school president, Stephen DiBiagio, says removing Ionescu, who is a John Carroll alumnus, as The Patriot’s adviser is a “personnel matter,” and as such, neither he nor other school administrators will discuss reasons for the change. When contacted by The Aegis, Ionescu also declined to comment.

Personnel matter aside, Durkin has muddied the waters further by handing out a set of prior review guidelines to staff of The Patriot last week which state, in part, that all articles for print or online “must be approved by either the Principal or the Director of Strategic Marketing & Communications.”

So, was this merely a coincidence? Or, was it related to Ionescu’s reassignment? Durkin says the guidelines have been on the books for years. “It’s nothing new,” he told The Aegis, while conceding there was some question if the guidelines had been followed before he arrived.

Two prior editors of The Patriot said there were no such guidelines in place during their tenures. Caroline Cooney, a former editor-in-chief who graduated in May, said at the start of the 2016-17 year, the school administration “tried to create a prior review policy, but The Patriot never practiced one.”

Clearly, the current higher-ups at John Carroll are desirous of imposing some form of pre-publication review, regardless of what may or may have been on the books. Since its founding almost 53 years ago, John Carroll has been affiliated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Even though the school always has been open to students from all religions — and many non-Catholics have attended, might it rightly be questioned if the school’s new leadership’s ultimate agenda is to adhere more closely to the Catholic doctrine with regard to content in The Patriot and other extra-curricular activities? While it’s their prerogative to do so, they haven’t handled the situation well from the standpoint of the people affected the most, their students, be they members of The Patriot staff or not.

Even in the age of social media, there still are many prior restraints on what gets published or otherwise disseminated to the world, not perhaps as many as there were a few years ago, let alone centuries, but they exist.

The problem is, decreeing that the adults are in charge and it’s our way or no way, doesn’t fulfill the basic goal of any “student run” publication, namely to serve as an educational tool and to adequately prepare those involved for life beyond school. There are reasons why news articles, no matter where they appear, need to be property sourced and – on more occasions than many might think – vetted by many eyes along a chain of command. But, when the people doing the overseeing aren’t willing to take the time to explain why it’s necessary, all they do is generate mistrust, which is particularly unwelcome at a time when mistrust is such a fungible commodity.

Whatever the reason for making changes at The John Carroll School student newspaper, it's truth that's being assaulted in the end.

Durkin’s own words to The Aegis are a pretty strong indication of where he stands: “I’m not interested in violating students’ First Amendment Rights. They can preach what they want. If they want to go post on social media, or go work for a newspaper independent of the Catholic Church, that’s well within their right.”

Which suggests there won’t be many “free and open encounters” within the halls of The John Carroll School, at least as long as he is in charge.

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