Va. school district creates prior review policy for independent student publications

VIRGINIA — Students who want to distributenonschool-sponsored literature in Montgomery County public schools now mustfollow guidelines that include prior review by the school principal and anappeals process that gives school board members final say.On June 2 theschool board approved the policy after three Blacksburg High School studentsattempted to distribute an editorial that was rejected from the school’sstudent newspaper, the Ink Wave. The students agreed to stop distributingthe editorial until the district could form a policy.“The policymerely states what the law is, and the purpose of the policy was to giveprincipals some guidance on what the law is,” said W. Wat Hopkins, aschool board member and communications professor at Virginia Tech University.Students must give the school principal a copy of the material sixschool days before they wish to distribute it, according to the policy. Theprincipal then has two days to review it and provide written objections to anycontent. The timeline further allows two days for appeals to the superintendentand two more for appeals to the school board. Hopkins said the policyfollows the Tinker standard for censorship of student expression, statingthat administrators can prohibit material that would prevent normal and routineconduct of classes or creates a significant likelihood of harm to people orproperty. The Tinker standard comes from a 1969 U.S. Supreme Courtdecision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.Administrators are given guidelines to determine what might fall intothose two categories and told to distinguish between “material [that] ismerely offensive or objectionable but not provocative.”The policyalso prohibits distribution of material that is libelous, obscene or advocates acriminal act under to federal, state or local laws. Brad King, anattorney for the school district, drafted the policy after reviewing policies ofother school districts, including Fairfax County in Virginia. The draft versiongave the superintendent final say in appeals, but Hopkins suggested the board.“When we’re dealing with free expression, I put that in the category of things that are important enough that the board should make thefinal decision,” Hopkins said. Under the policy, school-sponsoredstudent publications will be held to the same standards for distribution. Eachschool’s principal is charged with ensuring that publications meet thedistribution standards, and the appeals process and timeline are the same as forindependent publications.The three students who distributed theeditorial were unavailable for comment, but John Robertson, an attorney theyworked with, said they are satisfied with the policy.Hopkins said thatif the policy had been in place before the three students tried to distributethe editorial, they would have been able to distribute it. Donna Duff,the paper’s faculty adviser, told the Collegiate Times, anindependent student-run newspaper at Virginia Tech, that the editorial –about students using drugs to get through some teacher’s classes –was not published in the Ink Wave because it had not been turned inaccording to newspaper procedures.The policy has no effect on off-campusdistribution of literature or publications. For example, students would not needpermission to distribute material on public land surrounding a school or to postmaterial from home on a private Web site.