Ethical Educator

The 'Morally Offensive' Magazine Cover
School Administrator, November 2017

Scenario: The chair of the social studies department, who also teaches journalism, at a small suburban high school started having his seniors pay for a six-month subscription to Time magazine for use in writing summaries and discussions of current affairs. The principal of the school informs the teacher he is canceling the subscriptions because he objects to the magazine’s cover that depicts a breast-feeding mother, claiming it is “morally offensive.” The teacher sees it as a great opportunity to discuss freedom of the press. The dispute reaches the superintendent for resolution.

Meira Levinson: High school seniors are on the cusp of adulthood, which includes their exercising the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship: voting, serving on juries, registering for Selective Service and contributing to the common weal. Rather than being protected from “morally offensive” materials, high school seniors need preparation for encountering and debating them — and in particular, for doing so with people who hold diverse viewpoints about what even counts as offensive.

In my view, the principal is crazy for thinking that a photo of a breast-feeding mother is morally offensive. One would have to reject vast swathes of Christian art, including paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, El Greco and Botticelli as well as the massive scientific consensus in favor of breast-feeding’s health benefits for mother and child, to be offended by such a picture. But even if the principal’s judgment had merit — say, if Time had a cover story about loosening child pornography laws — the social studies teacher is exactly right that his students should be learning about freedom of the press and debating the responsibilities of journalists, not being blocked from exposure to potentially offensive perspectives.

This is particularly important nowadays, when citizens risk enclosing themselves in hermetically sealed media bubbles that reinforce their own viewpoints and exclude dissenting perspectives.  If there was ever a time for students to gain practice in seeking out, reading and assessing media sources from across an intellectual spectrum — from Breitbart to Fox to MSNBC to The Nation — this is it. Our future as a nation depends on it.
Sarah Jerome:
The teacher is right. This is a great opportunity to discuss freedom of the press.

As for the resolution, the superintendent could have a private meeting with the principal and help him broaden his view of world affairs and domestic issues in 2017. The superintendent could direct the principal to reconsider his position to cancel the subscription.

In addition, the superintendent and principal could participate in a forum on freedom of the press with the students to explore what is and is not acceptable for consideration in a journalism class where the topic is current affairs. This discussion would include some of the pertinent case law that has arisen in past years.
Maggie Lopez:
The superintendent needs to help the principal reconsider his stance on this issue. Calling out a picture of a breast-feeding mother as morally offensive and wanting to cancel the subscription to the magazine is an overreaction. Does he also plan to ban National Geographic? Photos in that magazine also could be viewed as offensive if this is the perception of the principal. 

Though perhaps well-intended, the principal’s attempts to prevent exposing students to a potentially controversial topic could create a controversy of its own. The students are seniors and undoubtedly already have been exposed to books, news articles and reports of a controversial nature (just turn on the TV). Students need to be able to process such topics, and the journalism class provides an opportunity to do this in a manner that can be responsibly and thoughtfully led by the teacher, particularly if the discussion is structured from an instructional perspective that aligns with journalism study.

These students are young adults. Some will probably know teen moms. Some have probably already been exposed to this topic. The principal and teacher working together must find common ground and a positive alternative to simply canceling the subscription and censoring/banning the lesson. These same students will see the same magazine cover when they are checking out at the grocery store. We cannot protect our students or schools from all controversy or freedom of the press in our world today. At times, like or not, we must find ways to address it in appropriate ways, diffuse the often divisive rhetoric around such issues and ask parents to help us do so.

Shelley Berman:

The superintendent faces multiple dilemmas in this case. The presenting issue is whether the teacher is proposing to inappropriately engage students in a conflict with management under the guise of teaching about First Amendment rights. However, other issues are also consequential.

Is it appropriate for the teacher to require students to purchase instructional materials for the classroom? To what degree does the teacher have discretion to select materials for classroom use outside those adopted by the district? What rights and protections does the teacher have under the First Amendment, district policy, and the teacher contract to use his professional judgment in the selection of materials and to engage students in discussion of First Amendment rights? Under what circumstances does the principal have the right to censor the selection of materials he believes are inappropriate? Does he have that right if students have paid for these subscriptions? Where is the boundary of authority to censor and on what grounds? Is it appropriate practice for the principal to act unilaterally without engaging or consulting the teacher? What is the appropriate process to follow when there is a conflict of judgment over instructional materials between a department chair and a principal?

This situation reflects a classic escalation of conflict in which one person reacts to another’s action without attempting to understand the other or to undertake a process by which the conflict might be resolved. There are a number of steps that should have been taken along the way to avoid the conflict in the first place.

The teacher should have consulted with the principal about students purchasing the subscription as a supplement to the curriculum. The principal should have discussed with the teacher his concerns about that particular issue of the magazine rather than unilaterally cancelling the subscription. Before reacting, the principal should also have discussed with the superintendent or others whether censorship was appropriate based on a picture of a breast-feeding mother in a magazine that is so widely read and has no connection to pornography.

Finally, the department chair should have appealed to the superintendent or another central office administrator to seek an opinion on how to best address this difference.
It is critical that the issue be resolved before students become aware of the conflict, which could undermine the authority and credibility of both individuals. The superintendent needs to meet with both individuals to discuss how this conflict could have been better addressed at multiple points along the way. In particular, the superintendent needs to counsel the principal about the inappropriateness of injecting his values before consulting with others about whether the picture could be considered morally offensive in a legal proceeding. The principal’s unilateral actions and failure to manage a conflict situation in a way that prevents, rather than furthers, escalation demonstrate serious inadequacies in his leadership and may need to be addressed directly through the evaluation process.

Although the teacher may want to make a case that he has the right to use the material and even to discuss with students how this issue represents freedom of the press, he should acknowledge that he could have attained his original instructional goals by asking for advice and assistance from another administrator. As a department chair, he, too, is a leader and needs to demonstrate the ability to manage differences and conflict in a respectful and considered manner.

Both individuals have a responsibility to acknowledge to each other the errors in judgment that were made along the way. They may have their differences, but need to work on ways of communicating that will reduce the likelihood of a similar conflict in the future. To resolve the current situation, the principal needs to restore the subscriptions and the teacher needs to proceed with his original instructional plan rather than repurposing the magazine cover to review the principal’s reactive decision.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; and Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.