New school district Internet policies give rise to nameless, faceless Web

Fearing wide access to personal information about their students on the Internet, some school systems are shutting down the Web sites for even the most innocuous school newspapers, saying they reveal too much to pedophiles around the world.

A school board in Massachusetts adopted a policy forbidding the school district’s Web sites to reveal any information about its students, including names and pictures, without the written consent of their parents.

Administrators interpreted the rule to include the Web site of the student newspaper at Oakmont Regional High School, in Ashburnham, forcing editors to either send out permission slips or change the names of any students mentioned in the articles. The paper had operated on the school’s server since 1998.

The Oakmonitor‘s staff decided instead to pull the newspaper from the school’s site and fight the rule, saying it violates students’ right to publication guaranteed by the state’s freedom of expression law. The law was originally written to protect print versions of newspapers and yearbooks, but Oakmonitor adviser Jim Mullins said that the same protections apply to the paper’s publication on the Internet.

‘It still, in our view, violates our First Amendment rights because it places a restriction on the newspaper,’ Mullins said.

Massachusetts’ freedom of expression law guarantees the right of students ‘to write, publish, and disseminate their views’ and protects the school system from any liability for students’ expression. It does not distinguish between different forms of media.

The policy does not restrict the print edition of the Oakmonitor, which is already distributed throughout the small town of 5,000. Mullins said he and his staff decided to fight the regulations rather than compromise the quality of the newspaper by changing names.

‘We think it would be a perversion of journalism if we took the names of the kids involved out of the stories,’ he said.

Instead, Mullins and several of his students are seeking the help of a Boston law firm to persuade the Ashburnham-Westminster School Committee to change the policy.

The school district’s decision comes as many systems across the country are drafting their first comprehensive Web site policies to replace rules made up bit-by-bit as schools set up sites. Law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have urged school systems to prohibit the posting of student information on their Web sites to keep stalkers from tracking down kids.

However, school officials seem to be unable to cite even a single specific example of a student who has been threatened or injured based on information on a school Web site.

District Business Manager Earnest Muserallo said the school committee is protecting the privacy of its students and not trying to restrict the newspapers. He added the district felt it could be held liable if the newspaper published pictures of students.

‘We’re not trying to infringe on First Amendment rights, but we can’t support [the paper’s site] because it is in violation of our Web policy,’ Muserallo said.

Mullins said the Oakmonitor received offers from private Web hosting services, but the paper turned them down because they would not offer the same exposure as the school’s site. More importantly, he said he wanted to make sure his students’ rights were preserved.

‘Our view is that it’s a school newspaper and that’s where we want it,’ Mullins said.

Features editor Jackie Adams said she respects the concerns of the school district and would be willing to remove the name of a student if their parents objected, but said she believes the policy goes too far to censor the paper.

‘It took away our rights as journalists,’ she said.

Students at Memorial High School in Wisconsin faced a similar restriction on the online edition of the yearbook, which was kept off the school’s servers for privacy reasons. The yearbook’s webmaster, Jerry Bauer, circulated a petition to reverse the policy but has been unsuccessful at changing the rule.

Even in districts without strict privacy policies, some parents have filed suit against schools for posting information about their children. School officials at the Academy Street School in New Jersey posted the names, addresses and pictures of several elementary students on the school’s Web site. Several parents sued the school for invasion of privacy, although it is not clear whether the case will be allowed to move forward by the courts.

In response to the incident, a state legislator introduced a bill to prohibit schools from posting personally identifiable student information on their Web sites without parental permission. The proposal garnered some support but did not pass the legislature.

‘Sadly, the Internet is abused by some individuals looking to prey on innocent young people,’ Assemblywoman Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, said in a press release. ‘Steps must be taken to assure schools do not inadvertently aid and abet individuals who would harm our children.’

Candace Perkins Bowen, a scholastic journalism expert at Kent State University rejects the notions that school newspapers on the Internet endanger kids just because they are available worldwide.

‘You have more to fear from the stalker around the corner than the one in Bangladesh,’ Bowen said.

Student journalists should persuade administrators to treat them like the working press, Bowen said, because this will help them learn about the importance of press freedom.

‘Letting them be professional teaches them more,’ she said.

Mullins said he believes the Ashburnham school committee’s decision will ultimately be reversed, because it has overstepped its bounds in the name of privacy.

‘If Congress can’t make laws restricting the freedom of the press, then our school committee shouldn’t be able to either,’ he said.