Pa. drops plan that threatened freedom of student journalists

PENNSYLVANIA — The state board of education, after beingheavily criticized by newspapers across that state, has decidednot to tamper with regulations protecting the rights of studentjournalists.

The announcement, which came at a hearing held Wednesday inHarrisburg, ends months of lobbying by high school journalists,advisers and professional newspapers. The board had proposed revisionslast fall that would have reduced approximately 24 paragraphsthat detailed specific protection for student journalists to fourparagraphs of broad regulations.

"Everyone was a winner here," said George Taylor,executive director of the Pennsylvania School Press Association."The board was a winner, we were a winner, principals werewinners and student journalists were winners. Everybody wins bykeeping the guidelines in place."

Taylor said the board will hold three more hearings in thecoming months in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. If nochanges are made following that process, the regulations wouldremain intact as they have since their adoption in 1984.

Despite Wednesday’s good news, Taylor said, he remains "cautiouslyoptimistic" that the regulations would be left untouchedfollowing the hearings. He encouraged student journalists to attendthe hearings to counter any sentiment in favor of altering theregulations.

"The reason I like these guidelines is that they tellstudent journalists and principals what they can and cannotdo," Taylor said.

Temple University journalism professor Tom Eveslage, an advocatefor student journalists, praised the board’s decision to dropthe revisions.

"Student journalists are far better off with the schoolcode the way it has been," he said. "There doesn’t seemto be any justification for changing it."

Besides reducing specific provisions to vague guidelines, theboard had proposed changing the wording of some of the regulations.

For example, the current guidelines state that "studentshave the right to express themselves unless the expression … threatensimmediate harm to the welfare of the school or community."The board had proposed removing the word "immediate,"which would have made it easier to censor student journalists,Taylor said. Another proposal would have prohibited material thatwas "plainly offensive" — a vague term that could bedefined in many different ways.

Taylor said he was told the proposed changes were the remnantsof revision process that was slated for 1994 but did not cometo fruition until now. He credited the state’s professional journalistsfor persuading the board.

"I don’t think this could have happened unless the professionalpress jumped on it the way they did," he said. "I believethey are worried about civil liberties in the country and a restrictivegovernment. They looked at this and said, ‘If they can do thisto the kids, then we could be next.’ "

Eveslage agreed with Taylor’s assessment.

"It really has made a difference that so many people froma range of perspectives have said the same thing," he said."I think it’s pretty hard for the state board of educationto ignore it because it’s not coming from a small vested groupof people, but a range of people."

State board of education member Edith Isacke, who is chairwomanof the committee revising the school code, was attending the boardmeeting this week and could not be reached for comment.

Isacke was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette assaying the outpouring of complaints against the proposal led theboard to its decision. "We had no idea that people thoughtwe were infringing on students’ freedom of expression," she said.

View the Pennsylvania code on student rights and responsibilities in our Law Library.