Wash. school district approves new policy allowing prior review of student publications

WASHINGTON — Student journalists in the Puyallup SchoolDistrict came back from summer vacation to a startling discovery: a new freedomof expression policy that placed every student publication in the district underprior review.

The policy, approved by Superintendent Tony Apostle on Aug. 26, requiresthe school principal to review all publications for adherence to the expressionpolicy and explicitly states that student publications are not a public forumfor student First Amendment rights.

The policy follows a controversy last spring, when the Emerald Ridge HighSchool JagWire published a prominent story about students’ oral sexexperiences, which quoted several students by name. Four of these studentsclaimed that they had not given permission for their names to be used andthreatened to sue the paper and the school district. The JagWire editorssaid they had taken care to ensure that each student was quoted accurately andwith permission.

Kristen Steenbeeke, a member of the JagWire editorial board, saidthe newspaper staff found out about the new policy on the first day ofschool.

“We weren’t exactly shocked because we thought something like thismight be coming, but we were disappointed,” she said.

Since the policy was approved, opponents have been trying to convince theboard to change it back to allow for student publications as public forums.Several student journalists voiced their concerns at the Puyallup School Boardmeeting Monday. Vincent DeMiero and Kathy Schrier, president and executivedirector of the Washington Journalism Education Association, respectively, alsospoke.

“We’re going to continue to try to fight this,” Steenbeeke said. “We’retrying to do it in a polite and cordial manner at first, but if we have tofight, we will.”

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, pointedout that the new policy is a complete about-face from the district’s historicalattitude toward student publications.

“The way that they’ve been operating their publications for the past 15years has just been tossed out the window,” he said. “They have been operatingtheir publications as public forums where student editors have been given theright to make the final editorial calls.”

Cliff Foster, legal counsel for the school district, said that the newpolicy is simply the district’s attempt to put student publications incompliance with existing requirements.

“The main purpose here is to make sure that student publications, whichwere making the case that they were open forums for student expression … werebrought into line with the policy, which clearly, I think, indicates thatstudent publications are district publications,” Foster said.

Foster acknowledged that the controversy around last spring’s JagWirearticle about oral sex had brought the situation to the district’sattention, but that the district had no interest in changing the content ofstudent publications.

“It’s not really designed to make any really significant changes in whatkind of stories are reported on,” he said.

Puyallup students disagree, saying that the threat of censorship could havea chilling effect on their ability to cover controversial issues.

“The main problem we have with it is not that we’re going to get censored,it’s that the cloud of censorship is hanging over our heads all the time,”Steenbeeke said. “We’re fearing self-censorship. We don’t want to censorourselves because we think the school district won’t like what we’re going towrite.”

Megan Albert, another JagWire editor, added that although theirprincipal is supportive of the newspaper and its work, they want to ensure thatfuture students will have the same freedom they’ve enjoyed.

“We’re really trying to set the standards so that the future journalists inthe Puyallup School District don’t have to deal with the problem of prior reviewand prior restraint,” she said.