SPLC model guidelines for high school student media

I. Statement of policy

Freedom of expression and press freedom are fundamental valuesin a democratic society. The mission of any institution committed to preparingproductive citizens must include teaching students these values, both bylesson and by example.

As determined by the courts, student exercise of freedom of expressionand press freedom is protected by both state and federal law, especiallyby the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Accordingly,school officials are responsible for encouraging and ensuring freedom ofexpression and press freedom for all students.

It is the policy of the ____________________________ Board ofEducation that (newspaper), (yearbook), (literary magazine) and (electronicor on-line media), the official, school-sponsored student media of ______________________ High School have been established as forums for student expression and as voices in the uninhibited, robust, free and open discussion of issues.

Each medium should provide a full opportunity for students to inquire,question and exchange ideas. Content should reflect all areas of studentinterest, including topics about which there may be dissent or controversy.

It is the policy of the __________________________ Board of Educationthat student journalists shall have the right to determine the contentof student media. Accordingly, the following guidelines relate only toestablishing grounds for disciplinary actions subsequent to publication.

II. Official student media

A. Responsibilities of Student Journalists

Students who work on official, school-sponsored student publicationsor electronic media determine the content of their respective publicationsand are responsible for that content. These students should:

l. Determine the content of the student media;

2. Strive to produce media based upon professional standards ofaccuracy, objectivity and fairness;

3. Review material to improve sentence structure, grammar, spellingand punctuation;

4. Check and verify all facts and verify the accuracy of all quotations;and

5. In the case of editorials or letters to the editor concerningcontroversial issues, determine the need for rebuttal comments and opinionsand provide space therefore if appropriate.

B. Unprotected Expression

The following types of student expression will not be protected:

1. Material that is “obscene as to minors.” “Obscene as to minorsis defined as material that meets all three of the following requirements:

(a) the average person, applying contemporary community standards,would find that the publication, taken as a whole, appeals to a minor’sprurient interest in sex; and

(b) the publication depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way,sexual conduct such as ultimate sexual acts (normal or perverted), masturbationand lewd exhibition of the genitals; and;

(c) the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, politicalor scientific value.

Indecent or vulgar language is not obscene.

[Note: Most states have statutes defining what is “obscene as to minors.”If such a statute is in force in your state, it should be substituted inplace of section II(B)(1).]

2. Libelous material. Libelous statements are provably false andunprivileged statements of fact that do demonstrated injury to an individual’sor business’s reputation in the community. If the allegedly libeled partyis a “public figure” or “public official” as defined below, then schoolofficials must show that the false statement was published “with actualmalice,” i.e., that the student journalists knew that the statement wasfalse or that they published it with reckless disregard for the truth ?without trying to verify the truthfulness of the statement.

(a) A public official is a person who holds an elected or appointedpublic office and exercises a significant amount of governmental authority.

(b) A public figure is a person who either has sought the public’sattention or is well known because of personal achievements or actions.

(c) School employees will be considered public officials or publicfigures in relationship to articles concerning their school-related activities.

(d) When an allegedly libelous statement concerns an individual whois not a public official or a public figure, school officials must showthat the false statement was published willfully or negligently, i.e.,the student journalist who wrote or published the statement has failedto exercise reasonably prudent care.

(e) Students are free to express opinions. Specifically, a studentmay criticize school policy or the performance of teachers, administrators,school officials and other school employees.

3. Material that will cause “a material and substantial disruptionof school activities.”

(a) Disruption is defined as student rioting, unlawful seizures ofproperty, destruction of property, or substantial student participationin a school boycott, sit-in, walk-out or other related form of activity.Material such as racial, religious or ethnic slurs, however distasteful,is not in and of itself disruptive under these guidelines. Threats of violenceare not materially disruptive without some act in furtherance of that threator a reasonable belief and expectation that the author of the threat hasthe capability and intent of carrying through on that threat in a mannerthat does not allow acts other than suppression of speech to mitigate thethreat in a timely manner. Material that stimulates heated discussion ordebate does not constitute the type of disruption prohibited.

(b) For student media to be considered disruptive, specific facts mustexist upon which one could reasonably forecast that a likelihood of immediate,substantial material disruption to normal school activity would occur ifthe material were further distributed or has occurred as a result of thematerial’s distribution or dissemination. Mere undifferentiated fear orapprehension of disturbance is not enough; school administrators must beable affirmatively to show substantial facts that reasonably support aforecast of likely disruption.

(c) In determining whether student media is disruptive, considerationmust be given to the context of the distribution as well as the contentof the material. In this regard, consideration should be given to pastexperience in the school with similar material, past experience in theschool in dealing with and supervising the students in the school, currentevents influencing student attitudes and behavior and whether there havebeen any instances of actual or threatened disruption prior to or contemporaneouslywith the dissemination of the student publication in question.

(d) School officials must protect advocates of unpopular viewpoints.

(e) “School activity” means educational student activity sponsoredby the school and includes, by way of example and not by way of limitation,classroom work, official assemblies and other similar gatherings, schoolathletic contests, band concerts, school plays and scheduled in-schoollunch periods.

C. Legal Advice

1. If, in the opinion of a student editor, student editorial staffor faculty adviser, material proposed for publication may be “obscene,””libelous” or would cause an “immediate, material and substantial disruptionof school activities,” the legal opinion of a practicing attorney shouldbe sought. The services of the attorney for the local newspaper or thefree legal services of the Student Press Law Center (703/807-1904) arerecommended.

2. Any legal fees charged in connection with the consultationwill be paid by the board of education.

3. The final decision of whether the material is to be publishedwill be left to the student editor or student editorial staff.

D. Protected Speech

1. School officials cannot:

a. Ban student expression solely because it is controversial, takesextreme, “fringe” or minority opinions, or is distasteful, unpopular orunpleasant;

b. Ban the publication or distribution of material relating to sexualissues including, but not limited to, virginity, birth control and sexually-transmitteddiseases (including AIDS);

c. Censor or punish the occasional use of indecent, vulgar or so called”four-letter” words in student publications;

d. Prohibit criticism of the policies, practices or performance ofteachers, school officials, the school itself or of any public officials;

e. Cut off funds to official student media because of disagreementover editorial policy;

f. Ban student expression that merely advocates illegal conduct withoutproving that such speech is directed toward and will actually cause imminentunlawful action.

g. Ban the publication or distribution by students of material writtenby non-students;

h. Prohibit the endorsement of candidates for student office or forpublic office at any level.

2. Commercial Speech

Advertising is constitutionally protected expression. Studentmedia may accept advertising. Acceptance or rejection of advertising iswithin the purview of the publication staff, which may accept any ads exceptthose for products or services that are illegal for all students. Ads forpolitical candidates and ballot issues may be accepted; however publicationstaffs are encouraged to solicit ads from all sides on such issues.

E. On-Line Student Media and Use of Electronic InformationResources

1. On-Line Student Media.

On-line media, including Internet Web sites, e-mail, listserves andUsenet and Bitnet discussion groups, may be used by students like any othercommunications media to reach both those within the school and those beyondit. All official, school-sponsored on-line student publications are entitledto the same protections and are subject to no greater limitations thanother student media, as described in this policy.

2. Electronic Information Resources

Student journalists may use electronic information resources, includingInternet Web sites, e-mail, listserves and Usenet and Bitnet discussiongroups, to gather news and information, to communicate with other studentsand individuals and to ask questions of and consult with sources. Schoolofficials will apply the same criteria used in determining the suitabilityof other educational and information resources to attempts to remove orrestrict student media access to on-line and electronic material. Justas the purchase, availability and use of media materials in a classroomor library does not indicate endorsement of their contents by school officials,neither does making electronic information available to students implyendorsement of that content.

Although faculty advisers to student media are encouraged to help studentsdevelop the intellectual skills needed to evaluate and appropriately useelectronically available information to meet their newsgathering purposes,advisers are not responsible for approving the on-line resources used orcreated by their students.

3. Acceptable Use Policies

The Board recognizes that the technical and networking environmentnecessary for on-line communication may require that school officials defineguidelines for student exploration and use of electronic information resources.The purpose of such guidelines will be to provide for the orderly, efficientand fair operation of the school’s on-line resources. The guidelines maynot be used to unreasonably restrict student use of or communication onthe on-line media.

Such guidelines may address the following issues: file size limits,password management, system security, data downloading protocol, use ofdomain names, use of copyrighted software, access to computer facilities,computer hacking, computer etiquette and data privacy.

III. Adviser job security

The student media adviser is not a censor. No person who advisesa student publication will be fired, transferred or removed from the advisershipby reason of his or her refusal to exercise editorial control over studentmedia or to otherwise suppress the protected free expression of studentjournalists.

IV. Non-school-sponsored media

A. Non-school-sponsored student media and the students who producethem are entitled to the protections provided in section II(D) of thispolicy. In addition school officials may not ban the distribution of non-school-sponsoredstudent media on school grounds. However, students who distribute materialdescribe in section II(B) of this policy may be subject to reasonable disciplineafter distribution at school has occurred.

1. School officials may reasonably regulate the time, place andmanner of distribution.

(a) Non-school-sponsored media will have the same rights of distributionas official student media;

(b) “Distribution” means dissemination of media to students at a timeand place of normal school activity, or immediately prior or subsequentthereto, by means of handing out free copies, selling or offering copiesfor sale, accepting donations for copies of the media or displaying themedia in areas of the school which are generally frequented by students.

2. School officials cannot:

(a) Prohibit the distribution of anonymous literature or other studentmedia or require that it bear the name of the sponsoring organization orauthor;

(b) Ban the distribution of student media because it contains advertising;

(c) Ban the sale of student media; or

(d) Create regulations that discriminate against non-school-sponsoredmedia or interfere with the effective distribution of sponsored or non-sponsoredmedia.

B. These regulations do not apply to media independently producedor obtained and distributed by students off school grounds and withoutschool resources. Such material is fully protected by the First Amendmentand is not subject to regulation by school authorities. Reference to orminimal contact with a school will not subject otherwise independent media,such as an independent, student-produced Web site, to school regulation.

V. Prior restraint

No student media, whether non-school-sponsored or official, willbe reviewed by school administrators prior to distribution or withheldfrom distribution. The school assumes no liability for the content of anystudent publication, and urges all student journalists to recognize thatwith editorial control comes responsibility, including the responsibilityto follow professional journalism standards each school year.

VI. Circulation

These guidelines will be included in the handbook on student rightsand responsibilities and circulated to all students.