Dropping names

The online staff directory for The Advocate, the student-run newspaper at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Conn., is a virtual alphabet soup of indistinguishable names.

Led last year by co-editors in chief Peter W. and Kelly S., the staff boasted nearly 80 members, none of whom are identified by last name on the newspaper’s Web site. The staff had two other student editors last year named Sara C. and Sarah C., and two reporters named Sean S., as well as three Matts – A., D. and G. In addition to cutting out online student bylines, the paper does not print the last names or photographs of any of its student sources on the Internet.

“It does get confusing,” adviser Chris Kulenych said. “Because if there are two Joe S.’s in the school, they may both be quoted in one story and actually be different people. And it’s one of our concerns too, because we have writers on staff with the same first name and last initial.”

Although it may at times be difficult to sort out, Kulenych said that Jonathan Law High School’s policy against publishing students’ last names and pictures online is designed to protect students from Internet predators. Administrators adopted the policy for the newspaper after it launched its site in 2004. Kulenych said some of his journalism students were at first confused and disappointed, but they have since accepted the policy.

“I think in a way it is a small form of censorship, and the kids know that, but in the end, the safety of the students has to supercede having last names online,” Kulenych said.

Kelly Sielert, one of The Advocate’s editors in chief last year who was known online simply as Kelly S., said the students on her newspaper staff did not really mind not having their full names on their Web stories because both first and last names still ran in the printed newspaper.

“Because we used the Web site only as a supplement to our actual publication, which had always been in print and had always used both first and last names, we felt that we were each getting the recognition we deserved through the printed paper and did not feel that having our last names on the Web site was a major issue,” Sielert said in an e-mail.

But some advisers and other journalism experts have criticized the practice at Jonathan Law High School and other schools like it. Some say that printing students’ last names on a student newspaper’s Web site does not raise enough of a credible safety risk to warrant such school policies. Others argue that it is impossible to engage in meaningful journalism when every source and every author effectively becomes anonymous. 

Effective policy

Craig Branson, online director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ High School Journalism Initiative, said Jonathan Law High School is one of what he estimated as about 15 percent of high schools nationwide that prohibit their student newspapers from publishing the last names of students in an online edition. And although there is no federal law keeping student newspapers from publishing full names of students on the Internet, Branson said that most schools across the country that create such policies do so because they believe it will increase students’ safety.

But Branson said that in an age of increasingly popular social networking sites like MySpace.com, such policies – although well meaning – probably are not generally that effective.

“These students have MySpace accounts, they have Xanga[.com] accounts, they have LiveJournal[.com] accounts, they’re on [America Online Instant Messenger] all the time,” Branson said. “I think it’s misguided because as much as these administrators or boards would like to think that they are protecting students, they aren’t, because students are already out there.”

Kulenych, Jonathan Law High School’s student newspaper adviser, said his school’s policy “in the end is probably not as effective as the district wants it to be” because students are online for so many reasons outside of school. But he said administrators there adopted the policy after an incident that happened at a local private girls high school, The Academy of Our Lady of Mercy, Lauralton Hall. 

Lauralton Hall Principal Ann Pratson said that about six years ago, a man had attempted to contact a Lauralton Hall student at school after he had read a profile story about her in the local newspaper.

Despite this incident, however, Lauralton Hall still prints last names and occasionally pictures of students on its official school Web site. Pratson said school administrators have discussed taking such information off the Web site, but they know that it would still be available elsewhere online, including from local media outlets that cover school news.

“It just seemed counterproductive to us, to have it in the local newspaper one way and then on our site another,” she said. 

Jonathan Law High School, like most schools with similar Internet policies, also still allows the student newspaper to publish last names and photos of students in its print edition. And although Jonathan Law’s paper is not distributed off campus, Branson said many schools that have similar Internet policies still allow public libraries and others in their communities to subscribe to student publications. 

Candace Perkins Bowen, a scholastic media program coordinator from Kent State University and a past president of the Journalism Education Association, said that “except for a few isolated incidents,” school policies against publishing names online could create “far more trouble than they are worth.” She said that when used responsibly, the Internet is not as dangerous as many school administrators might think.

“The Internet may have viewers half way around the world, but that doesn’t make it more dangerous,” she said in an e-mail. “They need to worry more about the stalker around the corner than the one in Bangladesh.” 

Web sites and the law

In addition to a misguided concern for student safety, Branson said some school policies against publishing students’ names and pictures online result from administrators and advisers misunderstanding the law. He said some schools have a misconception that allowing students to put too much information on student publications’ Web sites would violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal law that prohibits companies from collecting personal information directly from children under the age of 13.

But Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said applying COPPA to high school newspaper Web sites would be an “extreme misinterpretation” of the law, primarily because most high school students are older than 13. The law, he said, applies principally to commercial industries focused on marketing to children.

“Most of the regulations are actually about the collection of the information and not as much about the distribution of information,” Schwartz said. “The cases that they really want to go after with this law are companies that were collecting information from children under 13 and then trying to market to their families based on that information.”

Schwartz said it is possible that COPPA could be applied to middle school newspaper Web sites, but only if such newspapers exhibited some sort of commercial interest, such as by selling advertisements.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said another law that administrators might argue bars schools from publishing students’ names online is the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA prohibits schools from releasing any information about students that could be considered part of an “educational record.” 

However, FERPA contains an exception that allows schools to release certain “directory information” about students, which can include names, Hiestand said. In addition, FERPA only applies to school officials, so if students are making the editorial decisions for their newspaper rather than school administrators, FERPA does not apply.

 “As long as students only are making these decisions, they have a First Amendment right to talk about their classmates in a newsworthy context, and any regulation that has a blank prohibition on that would be unconstitutional,” Hiestand said.

In New Jersey, school districts are prohibited from publishing on their official Web sites “any personally identifiable information about a student without receiving prior written consent from the student’s parent or guardian on a form developed by the Department of Education,” according to state statute. This information includes “student names, student photos, student addresses, student e-mail addresses, student phone numbers and locations and times of class trips.” But nothing in the law would prohibit students from publishing this information if their online newspaper were hosted on an independent Web site.

Other states have their own education privacy laws that contain language similar to FERPA. 

Lessons lost

Although school policies against publishing students’ last names online generally stem from administrators’ worries over safety, many journalism experts argue that such restrictions are a disservice to readers. Others say that without bylines, the lessons student journalists learn from having their names published with their stories could be lost. 

Paul Kandell, adviser to The Paly Voice and Verde, two student publications at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, Calif., said that school policies against publishing students’ last names online do not make sense. The Paly Voice, which has won three National Scholastic Press Association Online Pacemaker awards and a Webby Award in 2005 for best student Web site, runs both student last names and pictures online.

“I don’t think we would have gone down the path of going online if we were subject to those restrictions,” Kandell said. “It seems like waste of time. I mean, how can you realistically cover anything meaningful in your community if you can’t publish names or photos of students? These are not restrictions placed on the professional press.”

Kandell said because he thinks less people would visit Web sites that do not publish last names or photos, the student journalists also may not put as much effort into their work.

“What makes a student press work is that it provides an audience to students for their work,” Kandell said. “If nobody is going to read what they do, in part because they can’t tell who’s who, or nobody can identify anyone, why would [the students] care?”

Branson, of the ASNE High School Journalism Initiative, agrees.

“Personally, I think that there’s a degree of pride that goes into your work when your name is on it, and there’s certainly a lot of positive reinforcement that you can get from seeing your name in print or online on a story,” he said. “But further than that, people take it a lot more seriously – the responsibility they have as journalists – when they know that their name is on it. I mean if Tiffany Brown’s name is on this story online and it can be Googled a year from now, and it has this glaring error on there, Tiffany Brown is really going to be watching herself in the future. But Tiffany B.? Who knows?”