Agreement reached over prior review request at Indiana school

INDIANA — The dispute between The Electron staff at Franklin Community High School and their principal –who wanted to enact a prior review policy after a January newspaper spread onsex –was resolved Wednesday.

Senior Ricci Warwick, editor in chief ofThe Electron, said after the staff met with Principal Craig McCaffreyWednesday, they realized he only wanted prior review because he thought theschool could be held liable for student-sponsored publications.

”Therehave been a number of cases involving public colleges that make it clear thatwhere school officials adhere to a ‘hands-off’ editorial policy, they won’t be held responsible for mistakes the student staff makes. The issue hasn’t been directly addressed at the high school level, but there is no reason the same logic shouldn’t apply,” said Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center.

Warwick said the principal and the editors tried to put their differences aside.

”[The new process] is basically what we do now … The adviser continues to look over the content. [McCaffrey] just wants us to make sure that it is relevant to most students.”

Warwick said the January spread dispelled common myths about sex and presented information on sexually transmitted diseases, the emergency contraception pill, condoms and the birth control pill. There was one news article, which discussed human papillomavirus and cervical cancer. A disclaimer at the top of the newspaper explained that the staff was not encouraging sex, but was instead trying to educate students who are sexually active.

McCaffrey could not be reached Thursday for comment on the resolution, but said Tuesday that although the article was pertinent to high school students, it concerned him that students were not referred to health services experts or other outlets so they could get more information.

”The [prior review] process doesn’t have to include me,” he said. ”It wouldn’t bother me if it didn’t. Maybe it’s another adult or an adviser that looks at something and poses these questions to students.” McCaffrey said an article in a previous Electron issue quoted an anonymous drug dealer at the school. If he had exercised prior review, he said the article would have been removed.

”My concern is if the student would have gotten caught on campus with those drugs — it was the student journalist that gave them up and that’s a risk by the journalist,” he said. ”At 16 or 17-years-old, I don’t think that’s an appropriate risk to take.”

Warwick said McCaffrey addressed the newspaper staff after the article first came out, giving them the impression that they could do nothing to stop the policy change. She attended Monday night’s school board meeting, where board members informed her this issue could still be worked out at the high school level.

Now that the issue has been resolved, Warwick said they will attend the March board meeting to propose their agreement in writing. The proposed policy will be released next week, she said.

John Wales, school board president for the Franklin Community School Corporation, said in an email that the January spread on sex also brought attention to some differences between the student handbook and the board’s policy on student publications.

According to Warwick, the staff has always gone by the student handbook, which states that, ”Content is controlled and edited by the staff editors.”

Wales also said several parents expressed their concern over the appropriateness of the January issue.

Jack Dvorak, journalism professor and director of the Indiana University High School Journalism Institute, said while content on sexuality might be uncomfortable for parents and administrators, it is important for students to learn about the topic.

”It seems like a valid, educational purpose for kids to be reading about things like that … and writing from their peers is going to be more effective than pamphlets prepared by the school nurse,” he said.

While high school administrators have the ability to enact prior review under the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, it is not an ideal situation for journalism students, he said.

Hazelwood said school officials generally may censor items in school-sponsored student media if they can present a reasonable educational justification for doing so, and if they have not traditionally allowed students to make final content decisions.

”Prior review is not an educationally sound policy,” he said. ”The circumstances should be left within the editor’s hands with the advice of the adviser. [The adviser] has the journalism degree and knows about journalism law and ethics.”

Warwick said in seeking support from the community, the Electron staff originally contacted Yu-long Ling, political science professor and Williams Chair in Law for Franklin College.

”Many of the people in our community don’t seem to understand the complexity of the First Amendment,” Ling said. ”They think the principal can dictate, but there is limitation to his authority … Schools always try to assert their authority on the student press. It’s almost a trend in this country.”

But Ling, who has taught constitutional law for 35 years, said there is a line between authority and individual rights. The question, he said, is who draws the line when something is controversial. The beauty of a democracy is that the Supreme Court can adjust line based on the reality, he said.

”The end of the authority is the beginning of the rights,” he said, adding that an article on safe sex is not something a principal should focus on.

Ling said he planned to submit an article to the Daily Journal Thursday, focusing on the First Amendment and why our founders set up a constitutional democracy.