Hawaii Dept. of Education Considers Mandatory Prior Review Policy for Student Publications

While state legislatures continue to introduce proposals to protect the free press rights of students, the state department of education in Hawaii may be moving in the opposite direction. The board is considering a draft of guidelines for school-sponsored student publications in the state that would require school administrators to exercise prior review and would require them to censor material that “ridicule[s] or subject[s] to scorn a student or groups of students.”

But complaints from advisers about the proposal prompted board of education committee members to send it back for more discussion.

The proposal arose after the state board, which oversees all public secondary and elementary schools in the state, faced controversy over material published in student yearbooks. In September, the board paid $80,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the families of two African-American students who believed a caption in the yearbook at Kalaheo High School was racially offensive. The appropriateness of the settlement in what many regarded as a legally questionable case was questioned by teachers and journalists.

“While $80,000 is no doubt far less than the cost of litigation, one wonders why the state had to pay anything at all,” wrote the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in an editorial.

The proposed guidelines would make Hawaii the first state in the country to require prior review of student publications. Journalism educators, including the Journalism Education Association, condemn administrative prior review of student media, saying it conflicts with teaching responsible independent journalism.

That belief prompted advisers from around the state to voice their concerns at a board of education meeting in November. State JEA director Patti Shannon said she believed the proposed guidelines were more concerned with covering the school board’s “backside” than with encouraging education. And Campbell High School yearbook adviser Kieth Long said the proposal had already resulted in demands for prior review by his principal.

After hearing what the advisers had to say, the board of education committee that developed the policy gave education department staff members until April to discuss the proposal with publication advisers.

This Hawaii proposal has us very concerned. While publication advisers have been successful in winning a temporary reprieve and allowing their side to be heard, the battle is certainly not over. Such proposals, were they to catch on elsewhere, could pose a significant danger to scholastic journalism. Obviously, we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments.