OHIO — School officials in Canton are debating their policy of administrative review for the district’s high school publications, and at least one expert says the current policy violates the First Amendment.
Principals at McKinley and Timken High Schools currently have the final say on what goes into their schools’ newspapers and yearbooks, but that may change.
During an August school board meeting, members listened to experts on high school journalism address the value of a free and responsible student press.
“From what they told us they were reviewing all policies,” said Jen Allchin, last year’s editor at the Odyssey, Timkin’s student newspaper, of the policy review.
Allchin said that her paper had never been censored, but that one board member did bring up a controversial article published in the Odyssey three years ago.
Randy Swikle, the state director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, was one of the experts who spoke at the meeting.
The Canton School Board’s current policy “contains provisions that violate protections of the First Amendment and are inconsistent with court rulings,” Swikle explained in an e-mail.
“For example, the current policy states that ‘material of a controversial nature should not be prohibited unless it … is considered false or libelous … ,’” Swikle said. “While the Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education (1969) that libelous speech may be prohibited in school, certainly the fact that information may be false is not by itself justification for censorship. People have the right to be wrong, even in presenting controversial perspectives.”
“Can anyone imagine an educational institution that shuts down the ‘marketplace of ideas’ whenever someone in authority feels that a perspective reflects information that is wrong? Such policy teaches students autocracy rather than democracy,” said Swikle, who spent more than 30 years teaching high school journalism and advising student newspapers.
Swikle said he disagrees with some of the changes school officials have proposed as well.
“A suggested revision of the current policy includes this statement, ‘As preserves of democracy, Canton City Schools shall protect, encourage and enhance free speech and the positive exchange of ideas as a means of protecting our American way of life,’” he said. “Does this mean that if a student’s ideas are considered negative because they are critical of school policy, then those ideas may be censored? Overall, there are just too many ambiguities in the student publications policy for Canton schools.”
Allchin, who is now a freshman at Kent State, said she is optimistic that the board will implement a lawful policy like the unofficial one that is followed at Timken.
“I really believe in the policy we had at Timken with no prior review,” Allchin said, adding that it is a good sign that the board has scheduled more meetings to discuss the issue and is willing to hear people out.
In an article in Canton’s The Repository, Brenda Neel, director of secondary education for Canton City Schools, proposed that the board adopt the Student Press Law Center’s Model Guidelines for High School Student Media.
Swikle also recommends the SPLC guidelines for Canton City Schools.
“It is written by attorneys, and it covers the rights and responsibilities of both the students and school officials,” Swikle said of the guidelines. “It is clear and concise, and it is supported by case law.”
In the same Repository article, Richard Milligan, school board vice president, said he “doesn’t like the policy,” and “he’s concerned the policy is written so well that it will force the board to relinquish some of its authority over student publications.”
When asked for comment by the SPLC, Milligan said in an e-mail that “the board has this matter in its policy committee. I cannot comment on the matter at this time since there will be additional information gathered and proposals made.”
—by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer