Va. school board may permit censorship of student publications

VIRGINIA — The Albemarle County School District hasdecided it will wait until the fall to consider revisions to apolicy that could grant school officials more control over student publications.The school board was scheduled to vote on the policy change this summer,but it delayed the decision after board member Gary Grant objected that studentjournalists and faculty advisers in the district were not informed. Now theywill be able to provide input before the policy comes up for vote mid-fall. Grant said he saw the policy change to be “unnecessary controls onstudent journalism.” “I do not think we need to add thesechanges,” said Grant, a former broadcast and print journalist. “Youhave to trust [the students], they may be 15 or 16, but we should be teachingthem to use the First Amendment to make the right decisions about what goes inthe student newspaper.”The policy revision proposed is based onthe 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that saidhigh school administrators can censor many school-sponsored student publicationssimply by showing they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.However, the Hazelwood decision does not require any school to censor.Mark Trank, the county’s deputy attorney, said Virginia lawrequires the school board to update their local policies periodically to adhereto the current legal requirements. Trank said the revision of thedistrict’s publication policy is “procedural” and was notprovoked by conflicts with student publications in thedistrict.“The legal standard that Hazelwood decisionenunciated was something that needed to be reflected in the school boardpolicy,” he said. Bob Button advises student publications for theVirginia High School League, a group that coordinates athletic and academicactivities for 301 pubic high schools in Virginia. He said he is concerned thatattempts at censorship subvert the learning experience rather than enhanceit.“Hazelwood obviously gives administrators a great dealof room to enforce what they believe are the educational concerns of theschool,” said Button, a 32-year veteran journalism adviser. “Toooften [Hazelwood] is used as a mechanism for simply suppressing contentthat administrators do not like or makes them uncomfortable.”SamLatter, a senior and editor of Western Hemisphere at the district’sWestern Albemarle High School, said he was not aware of the board’s proposedrevision of the publications policy until after the vote waspostponed.“I am angry there was a meeting without any journalismstaff,” Latter said. “[School board officials] were being sneakyabout it. All we would do is to give input, we were not going to threatenthem.”Latter will participate in the discussions regarding thepolicy in the fall, but he said he feels the current policy is fair. At WesternAlbemarle High School, Latter said the adviser instructs students on what isappropriate, and any final concerns may be discussed with an administrator.He said there have not been issues of censorship involving any articlesin the school paper in his three years on the paper’s staff.Grantsaid he is pleased the board is waiting to discuss policy revisions with thestudents in the fall, but he said he feels that giving school officials morecontrol is not the answer.“I still do not like the fact that [thepublications policy] gives more leeway to adults,” Grant said. “Thiskind of policy opens the door to administrators being abusive. We can do abetter job educating our kids rather than putting clamps on them telling themwhat they cannot write about.”