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Students say Seattle School Board threatens censorship

Posted by Kate Bergman on November 5th, 2011

Update Monday Nov. 7: Seattle schools have withdrawn this proposal, which was on tonight’s school board agenda.

“Based on a shared concern between district leadership and the board, this policy will be pulled from the current list of updates, scheduled for board action Dec. 7, and will be revisited in 2012,” Interim Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield said this afternoon

The proposal had drawn wide coverage over the weekend and today, including from electronic media and our news partners The Seattle Times.

“As a former journalism teacher, it is important for me – as I know it is for our board – that we uphold our practice of trusting our teachers to educate our students on the rights and responsibilities that come with freedom of expression and a free press,” Enfield said.

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This post is from our sister site My Ballard, but pertains to all Seattle public school papers.

Journalism students at Ballard High School say a proposal in front of the Seattle School Board violates their first amendment rights. They say the “new policy would remove student responsibility for content and set the stage for administrative censorship.”

The proposal, which was introduced at the last School Board meeting, gives school principals the right to review student newspapers before they’re published.

Kate Clark, the editor-in-chief of the Ballard Talisman, and Katie Kennedy, the managing editor, are furious at the proposal. On Friday, the duo spent their afternoon plastering downtown Ballard with these fliers (.pdf).

Clark and Kennedy are encouraging community members to attend the next School Board meeting on November 16th. Wippel tells us that action will be taken on December 7th, the day before the general election that includes four incumbent board members.

From the flier:

CURRENT POLICY: Students have the right to FREEDOM OF THE PRESS and may express their personal opinions in writing. They must take full responsibility for the content of their publications by identifying themselves as authors and or editors of the publication. They are not allowed to make personal attacks or publish libelous or obscene material. –Seattle Public Schools Student Rights and Responsibilities 2011-2012

PROPOSED POLICY: The principal may request to review any copy prior to its publication. Material must be free of content that: runs counter to the instructional program; is libelous; obscene or profane; contains threats of violence towards a person; invades a person’s privacy; demeans any race, religion, sex, or ethnic group; advocates the violation of the law or school rule; advertises the tobacco products, liquor, illicit drugs, or drug paraphernalia; materially and substantially disrupts the operations of the school; or, is inappropriate for the maturity level of the students. –Superintendent Procedure 3220SP

The students currently work with an adult adviser on the Talisman, and they can print whatever they want, using journalistic best-practices. They believe that if the proposed changes are approved, 80 percent of their content would be cut. “We challenge a lot of the things that happen,” Clark says. “We don’t want that right to challenge authority to be taken away from us.”

Students do have free expression, Teresa Wippel with Seattle Public Schools says, but the district can regulate some of what they write. This is a way, Wippel tells us, for the district to have a uniform policy on student publications. After checking with the district attorney, she says that because the students are working on school grounds, using school resources, this proposal is well within their rights on the state and federal level.

The Superintendent Procedure 3220SP states:

The Superintendent is authorized to develop guidelines assuring that students are able to enjoy free expression of opinion while maintaining orderly conduct of the school.

In order for a student publication or speech to be restricted for causing a material and substantial disruption, there must exist specific facts upon which it would be reasonable to forecast that a clear and present likelihood of an immediate substantial disruption to normal school activity would occur if the material were published and distributed. Material and substantial disruption includes, but is not necessarily limited to: student riots; destruction of property; widespread shouting or boisterous conduct; or substantial student participation in a school boycott, sit in, stand-in, walk-out or other form of activity.

“The idea is, obviously, we want to educate future journalists on their rights and responsibilities,” Wippel says.

“How are we supposed to learn to be responsible when we’re not given responsibility in the first place?” Kennedy says.

To read the proposal, 3220SP, click here (page 50-54 of the .pdf)



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10 reader comments so far ↓

  • 1 Christina // Nov 5, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    If I lived in a magic land where the Public Schools district admin and Board paid attention, I’d tell them this ignorance and disregard of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-400-215 in this case, conditional certification of “emergency teachers” is another WAC violation) is disrespectful to the law and the community of large.

    I did make my opinion known via ballot, and this comment.

  • 2 Kathy Schrier // Nov 5, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Teresa Wippel is absolutely wrong when she says that because students are using public school facilities that their First Amendments rights can be infringed upon. Our state constitution says otherwise. These students are not doing work for hire as in a privately owned news outlet. They are citizens receiving a public education, paid for by tax payers, and they are producing news for their community. They do need guidance, as they are students, and it is logical to expect them to follow the law; however, school administrators are not only government officials, but they are also primary sources for news information. How can student reporters serve a press function in their schools, if editors must present stories to their primary sources for review prior to publication? The current, but challenged, policy shows respect for students with the expectation they will be responsible and will abide by the law. We do not need to fix a policy that has served the district well for twenty years, and has given students the opportunity to be concerned civic minded contributers to their school communities.

  • 3 Matthew Fleming // Nov 6, 2011 at 8:43 am

    The first amendment doesn’t apply here.

    First, these kids are under 18. Second, no one has passed a law limiting their expression. The school has no legal duty to publish anything at all, mush less the words of the student journalists.

    Perhaps we could educate high schoolers as to what the Constitution actually says?

  • 4 DC // Nov 6, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    OCCUPY SEATTLE SCHOOL BOARD!!!

  • 5 stwcc // Nov 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    If only someone would censor board members whenever something stupid comes out of their mouths!

  • 6 MapleLeafBob // Nov 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    If there was more of a review process to ensure content is factual and has some sort of journalistic integrity from high school newspapers all the way through national and international news outlet, there would be a lot less “crap” being spewed.

    Let’s be honest, journalism now days is more about stirring the pot and driving drama topics than factually reporting about what is going on. The junk coming from outlets like MSNBC and Fox News gives real journalists a bad name and the industry as a hole a black eye.

    I don’t see a problem with allowing a review process before something is published as long as the review process clearly states what is being reviewed and what factors must exist to justify restricting, altering, or removing content.

    It’s a serious catch 22 for schools because on one hand people want freedom to let the students post whatever they want, but then on the other hand if they end up posting something that offends the majority of people in their area the school will be bashed and criticized for letting that content be printed.

  • 7 J // Nov 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Yay for these students! Awesome news!

  • 8 Simon // Nov 8, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Minors most certainly do have the right of free speech and the First Amendment does pertain to the rights of students in schools (see West Virginia SBE v. Barnette, 1943).

    Student free speech was addressed further in 1969: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech or Expression at the schoolhouse gate… School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect . . . In the absence of specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views,” the only exception being speech that “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others is, of course, not immunized by the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.” (Tinker v. Desmoines ISD, 1969)

    A distinction was later drawn between school-sponsored and non-school-sponored publications in Hazelwood SD v. Kuhlmeier (1988), where non-school-sponsored publications have much more leeway than do school-sponsored publications. This ruling held that schools can limit student speech to the extent that doing so is “reasonably related” to “legitimate educational concerns,” including speech that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences, or inconsistent with shared values of a civilized social order.” Hazelwood did not overturn Tinker, however, and particularly at the secondary level schools must show “material and substantial disruption” to education to impose censorship.

  • 9 Akame // Nov 8, 2011 at 10:32 pm

    It isn’t like these kids put together the paper unattended. I’m sure there’s probably a teacher involved somehow already making sure there isn’t anything wild and crazy in their paper. I wonder what kind of person bitched to get this thing even started… ugh

  • 10 Hank // Nov 11, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Simon is correct, minors do have a constitutional right to free speech. But officials may absolutely curtail what students express in a school-sponsored paper. These students may be “outraged,” but the legal merits of their argument are weak. If they choose to publish something on their own, using their own resources, on their own time, that’s a much different matter…