While student journalists across the country struggle to retain their right to freedom of expression, some are receiving additional help from the most unlikely of places. As the year wound down, two school boards voted to redraft their student publications policies, one to put into policy what was already a practice and another to lessen the possibility of future censorship.
At Clayton High School in Missouri, school administrators and adviser Nancy Freeman decided to redraft the student publications policy when they realized that it read much like the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that permits limited censorship of school-sponsored publications.
Freeman said Clayton has always been an open-minded area.
‘It’s been a place where student freedom of expression has always been valued and permitted,’ she said.
Superintendent Don Senti suggested that they put that practice in writing.
The board voted to adopt the new policy on June 12. It applies to all high school student media, including the Globe newspaper, the WORKS literary magazine, the television station and the yearbook.
‘Because Clayton High School student journalists historically have exercised their powers and skill in a responsible, respectful and appropriate manner, the board encourages the administration to allow its student journalists to function with minimal oversight consistent with the trust and respect that its student journalists have earned,’ the policy states.
The policy allows student publications to operate without administrative interference unless content falls in one of the areas of expression not protected by law.
‘What we’re hoping is that maybe some other school districts who are already granting their students freedom will take this step to put it into writing,’ Freeman said.
While Clayton celebrates its autonomy, student journalists at Bryant High School in Arkansas are celebrating a smaller victory that adviser Margaret Sorrows said gives student journalists a tool to combat unfounded censorship.
In response to difficulties with the prior review process, Bryant administrators have adopted a new policy that calls for the formation of a publications committee to advise the paper when the principal and adviser do not agree on content matters.
The change in policy was drafted after tensions mounted in February. Editor Holly Ballard said the new guidelines were triggered by The Prospective‘s coverage of school board meetings and new Superintendent Vickie Logan.
The situation escalated when the editors decided to run a series about discrimination at the high school. Principal Danny Spadoni barred students from publishing the final article after controversial questionnaires were circulated.
Students, however, drew Spadoni’s attention to the editorial policy, which stated that ‘editorial materials and advertisements shall not be excluded because such material is controversial.’ The paper also cited Arkansas’ Student Publications Act, which prohibits school officials from censoring student publications except in limited circumstances.
Under the old policy, when the adviser and the students disagreed, they consulted the principal.
Under the new policy, the adviser and the principal control the content and make suggestions for changes. When they disagree, the matter will go before a committee comprised of a student editor, the adviser, four teachers and a professional journalist. The committee will consider the matter and make official recommendations.
After the committee’s recommendations, the principal still retains final content control of the paper. Unlike the old policy that failed to address procedure, the new policy calls for the principal’s decision to be based solely on the advice of the board and school guidelines drafted within the scope Hazelwood. The policy allows administrators the right of prior review to ensure that libel, obscenity, invasion of privacy and other material that would cause a ‘material and substantial disruption’ are not published in a school-sponsored publication.
Spadoni could not be reached for comment. Sorrows said she can live with the new policy because decisions on content will be based on strict guidelines and the advice of the committee, a collective rather than singular consideration. She will also be a strong advocate for her students.
The policy does not, however, offer explicit job protection for Sorrows, whose job was threatened earlier this year.
‘I don’t mind having this at all, because it requires my approval,’ Sorrows said. ‘I’ve seen this work at other schools.’