School district in Washington state considers prior review policy

WASHINGTON — Administrators at Renton High School nearSeattle who want to impose a strict prior review policy on thestudent newspaper say the change has nothing to do with editorialsin the paper that caused "hurt feelings" last December.

While Hilari Anderson, adviser to The Talking Stick, agrees, she claims an October editorial on the school’s policy on fighting that “hurt vice principal Alice Coleman’s feelings” and a December cartoon drawn by student Michael Baxter portraying Renton principal Willie Fisher as uninformed increased awareness of the change.

Under the proposed revision, the current policy giving principals"the authority to monitor" student publications wouldbe changed to give school officials the right to "reviewany copy prior to publication." The policy would be effectivethroughout the school district.

The new wording would make Renton’s policy one of the morerestrictive in the state, said Fern Valentine, chairwoman of theFreedom of Expression task force for the Washington JournalismEducation Association.

"We feel sure that many districts have no policies atall and just practice prior review by tradition," Valentinesaid. "Often the adviser isn’t aware of student rights oris unwilling to fight that tradition."

Renton school district Executive Director of Secondary EducationLouis Pappas said the proposed change is part of an overhaul ofschool board policies that has been ongoing over the past severalyears in Renton.

"[The cartoon] has absolutely nothing to do with the processat all," Pappas said.

The motivation for the policy revision came from a WashingtonState School Directors Association directive, which also providedthe wording for the proposed publications policy in what Pappascalled a "template" of generic school board policies.

Renton’s current publications policy was formulated in theearly 1980s. This was before the 1988 Supreme Court decision inHazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that gave administrators wider latitudeto review many school-sponsored newspapers.

"I’m really in a conundrum on [this issue]," Pappassaid. "We certainly don’t want to suppress freedom of expressionby our kids, that’s not the intent at all. We all want to do what’sin the best interest of our kids. Building administration needs,in my opinion, to have supervisory responsibility over all activities,and that’s what this policy gives them over student publications."

Pappas said the proposed policy was by no means final and thedistrict has consulted a First Amendment expert for advice onhow best to proceed without curtailing student freedom of expression.Students and staff were welcomed at a board meeting to discussthe proposed changes earlier this month, he said.

"We encourage their input, and I’m glad they stepped forward,because this is an important topic, and we certainly don’t wantto establish policy that’s not good policy," Pappas said.

Valentine’s task force is also involved in the process to createRenton’s new policy — a policy she said is necessary to grantfreedom of expression due to the broad wording of Washington stateregulations on student press freedom.

"We are working hard to provide the committee workingon the policy changes with policies that would be better models[than the one proposed]," Valentine said, adding that Rentonhas received a copy of the SPLC model guidelines for student publicationsto consider. This model has been successful at a nearby school districtin Auburn, Wash., she added.

The Renton school board plans to discuss the proposed changesat its Feb. 13 meeting, and the soonest any revision would bevoted on is Feb. 27.

Read the full text of the SPLC model guidelines for student publications in our resource center.