Pennsylvania state board of education withdraws proposed revision to education code

Just one week before a scheduled vote on revising state education code regulations, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education this month withdrew its proposed changes that some argued would have restricted student media rights.

Section 9 of Chapter 12, the “Freedom of Expression” section, was enacted in 1984. The first part cites the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines ruling as precedent for student media. The second part says, “Students have the right to express themselves unless such expression threatens immediate harm to the welfare of the school or community.”

In November 2003, the board proposed adding the Supreme Court cases Bethel v. Fraser and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier to the Tinker reference. The Fraser ruling upheld the authority of school administrators to punish certain student speech deemed vulgar or offensive in a school assembly, while the Hazelwood ruling allowed schools to impose greater restrictions on some school-sponsored student media.

The board further proposed changing policy language prohibiting speech that “threatens immediate harm” to a broader “threatens immediate or serious harm” standard.

The House Education Committee held a public hearing on Feb. 23 and planned to convene March 8 to vote on the proposed changes. However, comments at the hearing prompted the board to formally withdraw the proposal on March 1 to reconsider the regulation.

Rep. James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia), co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said there was “substantial opposition” to the proposed changes at the hearing that indicated the committee would not have voted approve them.

The Pennsylvania School Press Association and the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union were among those that opposed the revisions. The ACLU’s legislative director, Larry Frankel, spoke on that group’s behalf at the Feb. 23 hearing.

“[Hazelwood and Fraser] limit the breadth of the Tinker decision and circumscribe the rights of public school students,” Frankel stated at the hearing. “Adding this reference to the existing regulation sends a signal that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania no longer fully respects the First Amendment rights of students.”

Jim Buckheit, the executive director for the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, said the regulation will first go to the House Education Committee for review after the Chapter 7, 11, and 12 Committee reaches its decision on whether to alter the proposed changes, keep them as is or drop them completely.

The board has until December 2005 to produce the final form of the regulation, or the proposed changes will be dropped.

SPLC View: It looks as if Pennsylvania’s high school student media can breath a sigh of relief, at least temporarily. Now if only Pennsylvania State Board of Education officials would find something better to do with their time than to continue to draft changes to Pennsylvania’s education code that would muddy the legal lines for everyone. Despite proponents’ claims to the contrary, there is no reason to make the proposed changes other than to give Pennsylvania school officials more authority to censor student speech. Fortunately, the PSPA and ACLU seem to have gotten that message across. Unfortunately, it appears likely that proponents of the measure might be willing to try again.