Student editors up in arms over restrictive publications policy

NORTH CAROLINA — A slap in the face.

That’s how Dani Landskroener, an editor at First Flight High School’s student newspaper, Nighthawk News, described the new regulations imposed on Dare County student publications over the summer.

A set of guidelines that includes a ban on printing images of students violating the dress code awaited the staffs of Nighthawk News and Manteo High School’s Sound to Sea when they returned to school this year. The regulations were implemented by Dare County Superintendent Sue Burgess.

"It was hard," Landskroener said. "You always hear about other school systems having to deal with this stuff and you never think it could happen to you. It was really unexpected. Up to this point we haven’t been censored."

Landskroener said that she and other members of the Nighthawk News staff are planning ways to fight the regulations.

Several students plan to attend a school board meeting next week where they will hand out copies of the Student Press Law Center’s Model Guidelines for High School Student Media as an alternative to the new regulations, she said. Students also plan to address the board with their concerns about the new policy.

Landskroener plans to take part in an interview discussing the topic at halftime during the radio broadcast of First Flight’s homecoming game today, as well.

The new regulations were not intended to suppress students’ constitutional rights and expressions of opinion as journalists, Burgess said in an article in the Outer Banks Sentinel, a local paper. The restrictions include a ban on images of students wearing attire that violates the student dress code, content that associates the school with anything other than neutral political stances and advertising or promotion of any product, service or activity unlawful for minors.

"These regulations provide guidelines for students and principals, where in the past there may have been many disagreements over what should be published," Burgess told the Sentinel. "This just makes the process a lot easier."

But student media experts say that some of the new guidelines are too vague.

"After I read them I was a bit puzzled," Monica Hill, director of the North Carolina Scholastic Media Association, said of the regulations. "I found that some of them were a bit restrictive and somewhat unclear."

Burgess acknowledged in the Sentinel that some of the regulations are unclear.

"I agree that some of the regulations are vague, but we can’t address them in reference to an issue until we are confronted with an article," she said.

Burgess also told the Sentinel that the new rules were not aimed at changing the style or content of the county’s student publications.

Adam Goldstein, the SPLC’s new media legal fellow, said he disagrees.

"The new policy … appears to be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to control the content of the student newspaper," Goldstein said. "When a rule prohibits the use of pictures of students in certain types of street clothes, it’s very hard to imagine that it was motivated by something other than a desire to control content."

Goldstein also said the regulations are vaguely defined.

"The policy uses words like ‘promotes,’ ‘encourages’ or ‘condones,’ but never defines them," he said.

Goldstein added that due to ambiguity, many appropriate topics, such as politics and military service, could be deemed unsuitable for publication under the new regulations.

"The regulations prohibit the promotion of anything not permitted to minors by law," he said. "That regulation would appear to prohibit the discussion of voting or military service. I would think, however, that well-educated teens interested in becoming active and supportive members of American society would have opinions about voting and defending the country."

Robin Sawyer, Nighthawk News’ faculty adviser, said she hopes that the school district will consider replacing the new guidelines with the SPLC’s Model Guidelines.

"I wrote a policy manual for my students years ago that used the wording of the SPLC Model Guidelines," said Sawyer, who has also taught at Manteo. "Ideally a student newspaper should be given First Amendment rights that are clearly worded."

Burgess told the SPLC she was not considering the SPLC’s suggested policy because the school board does not recognize Nighthawk News and Sound to Sea as open forums. She said that the newspapers have never been considered open forums and that they have never suffered because of it.

Burgess said she is confident that both schools will be able to continue producing quality papers under the new policy.

Lauren Cowart, a former editor at Sound to Sea, said she is grateful for her journalism experience at Manteo High and hopes that the new regulations do not hinder future school journalists.

"I feel as if I got a true grasp on what newspaper production is actually like," said Cowart, now a journalism and mass communications student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an e-mail. "We wrote real articles, tackled real issues and got real response. It felt more like an internship that was preparing me for a future job, not a course in high school."

The new regulations, Cowart said, are sending a twisted message to student journalists in Dare County.

"By implementing a regulation while still claiming that these newspapers can print the same material as always strongly suggests that this is just a matter of power and control," Cowart said. "However, while tightening their grip, administration and school board members are limiting constitutional rights. Why is it that when high school graduates turn their tassels, only then do they have freedom of speech? What does that teach students?"

by Clay Gaynor, SPLC staff writer