Student broadcast not yet in the clear

MARYLAND — When students focused an episode of their live television program on the topic of same-sex marriages, they had no idea that it would snowball into a county-wide struggle for journalistic freedom.Since October 1996, when the episode of Shades of Grey was censored by school officials, superintendent Paul L. Vance has promoted restrictions on both broadcast and print student media in Montgomery County. His office altered the guidelines for school-sponsored student media by inserting — without the knowledge or approval of the school board — language into the text directly from the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, which gave school officials greater authority to control school-sponsored student expression.In a letter to The Washington Post, journalism advisers at Montgomery Blair High School described the new regulations as “a 180-degree turn in policy, a turn probably prompted by Shades of Grey.” The previous policy, which was very protective of student free press rights, had been adopted by the school board as part of the settlement of a censorship lawsuit in 1984.In the first move to reverse Vance’s action, the board of education struck down the restrictive language of the student press guidelines, which stated that material could be censored if it advocated activities that are not “shared values of our society.” At an April meeting, the board also restored the freedom to print unbalanced material (such as editorials) by removing the clause that said material could be banned if it “associates the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”Blair student journalists defending their rights described the school board’s meeting as “healthy” and said they feel that the student media guidelines are “close to a form we can live with.”However, student broadcast journalists still have a fight ahead of them as content guidelines for television production continue to evolve. At the April meeting, the school board passed a resolution stating that professional journalists and teachers will be asked to give their input into the developing broadcast standards.This is a small step forward after the board approved in December a policy stating that television programs produced by students must support the school system’s “educational goals.” The policy also gives school officials the final say on whether a program may air on the county1s educational channels.Some student journalists have objected to that “veto power” granted to county officials, and they want that decision to rest with their advisers. “We feel that the teacher-adviser should have full authority over content under the supervision of the principal,” said Jonah Eaton, a Blair student and chief engineer of the school’s television studio, WBNC.Yet the policy will not be practiced until the board approves detailed guidelines on how it should be implemented.The superintendent has offered a lengthy process for student broadcast journalists to follow.Under the guidelines proposed by Vance, students producing live television programs would have to fill out a form complete with signatures from the principal, media specialist and the teacher sponsoring the show. Student producers would also have to supply the show’s title, instructional objectives, the name of the teacher who will be present during the airing, hosts’ questions and guests1 resumes or biographies.The regulation proposed to the board also states that an instructional director from the school system will have 10 working days to decide whether the program can air. If approved, the program will air within a two-month time frame.”Every student show will be set back months, robbing the show of its timeliness,” Eaton told a Montgomery Journal reporter.Presently, student journalists are working under a set of interim guidelines and are awaiting another board meeting in which professional journalists and teachers will express their concerns about the standards. Ultimately, the guidelines will be established by the school board members who will weigh the conflicting recommendations of the professional journalists and county officials.”Students, advisers and principals can exercise the best discretion and should be endowed with that responsibility. County officials don’t have that knowledge,” commented Adam Jentleson, a Blair student who helped form the Maryland Coalition for a Free Student Press. “The county administration has insisted on fixing something that isn1t broken.”