Fairfax school district considers student-expression policy change

VIRGINIA — An attorney for the Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest district in the Washington, D.C. area, is recommending that the district abandon its student-expression policy for a more censor-friendly version that explicitly states that school publications are not open forums, according to documents obtained by the Student Press Law Center.

In a confidential memo dated October 2006 to the school district’s lawyers, private attorneys from the Washington, D.C., law firm Hunton & Williams suggest that the district “eliminate any statements of policy or purpose suggesting that a publication is a public forum.” In March 2007, school Attorney Anne Murphy echoed the sentiment in a separate confidential memo to administrators.

“Although most [high school] newspapers seem to be functioning smoothly, a number of them have articulated a publishing philosophy that we would not recommend, such as statements that the paper is an ‘open forum,'” Murphy wrote in an e-mail to administrators.

She concluded the e-mail by suggesting that principals “attempt to steer their respective papers to more-curriculum related (rather than open forum) statements of purpose.”

Paul Regnier, the coordinator of the school district’s Office of Community Relations, said the district has never had a policy that declared school publications open forums.

“Newspapers are part of the journalism curriculum,” he said.

But advisers and editors at many of the high school newspapers have adopted their own policies that name their publications open forums, a designation that gives student editors control of content and hinders principals from censoring.

Murphy’s e-mail suggests that principals get rid of such publication policies, and Regnier said administrators are planning “staff development” training for advisers to “make sure everyone is on the same page.”

Murphy is relying on the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which allows administrators to control newspapers that are not deemed public forums for student expression.

Murphy’s suggestion has alarmed many high school journalism advocates, in and outside the district.

“I’m just horrified,” said Becky Sipos, communications director at Character Education Partnerships and former award-winning Fairfax school district newspaper adviser. “The open forum allows for students to express their opinions and get community dialogue. I can’t imagine eliminating it.”

Regnier said he would not comment on why the district sought the advice of attorneys or provide details or comment on the documents because they are confidential.

The private attorney’s memo indicates that the school district sought guidance “as to how, and under what circumstances, public school systems may regulate advertisements that members of the public seek to include in school publications.”

Some newspaper advisers in the district suggested the motivation for such legal advice was related to a controversial advertisement in the student newspaper at West Springfield High School. Brooke Nelson, adviser of The Oracle at West Springfield, did not return requests for comment.

The attorney’s proposal also comes as Assistant Superintendent Ann Monday is retiring. Her replacement has not been named. Alan Weintraut, the newspaper adviser at Fairfax’s Annandale High School, said the hole in leadership makes for a risky climate that might allow such a change in policy.

Adding fuel to the fire, the newspaper adviser at Lake Braddock High School was removed this summer after the paper printed controversial articles in March. At the time, district spokeswoman Mary Shaw said that high school could see a new policy next year. The memos, however, suggest the policy change would extend to the entire district.

With an enrollment of more than 164,000 students, Fairfax is the largest district in the state and the 13th largest in the country. Its newspapers at 25 high schools have won countless awards.

Candace Perkins Bowen, director of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, said the suggested change sounds like “fingernails on a chalkboard” to her. She added that Fairfax is one of the best examples in the country of what high school journalism should be.

“We need places like [Fairfax] as role models for the right way: large, informed districts that get it,” said Bowen, who taught in the Fairfax district for a year before moving to Kent State University 12 years ago.

Chad Rummel, the yearbook and newspaper adviser at Oakton High School, said removing the open-forum status at Oakton “would only hurt the students in the long run.”

“That [status] allows us to teach the kids in a way that’s real, in a way that gives them responsibilities in addition to their rights,” he said.

If the policy change is successful, the district would be responding to a few isolated mistakes by taking away all of the students’ learning opportunities, Rummel added, referring to the controversies at Lake Braddock and West Springfield.

“If a football player drops a pass, you don’t get rid of football in the school,” he said. “You work with that player.”

But Murphy contends that it is in the district’s best interest to treat all newspapers similarly.

“Although there is room for flexibility among schools, when some schools censor an article as ‘age inappropriate’ and other schools publish articles on the same topic, it is more difficult for the schools in group #1 to defend their decisions against First Amendment challenge,” Murphy wrote in an e-mail.

Despite outrage from journalism advocates outside the district, many advisers say they are not worried.

Weintraut, who has taught for 13 years, said Fairfax enjoys a long-tradition of freedom of the press.

“We’ve never operated under prior review,” Weintraut said. “That would be a condition of my employment.”

Mary Kay Downes, the longtime yearbook adviser at Chantilly High School, said such a change is “not likely to happen” in the district.

“Quite frankly, I have no worries about student press freedoms enjoyed by FCPS students being eroded in any way,” she said in an e-mail.

But Sipos, who worked within the district for more than 15 years, said such a drastic change is possible, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Morse v. Frederick, which gave administrators the go-ahead to censor messages that advocate the use of illegal drugs.

“[Administrators are] thinking now’s their chance,” she said.