FAQ: SPLC's legal geniuses answer the most asked questions


Does including “in my opinion” protect mefrom a libel or defamation suit? Including the phrase “In myopinion” (for example, “In my opinion the principal illegally usedschool buses for a family vacation”) does not create an automatic shieldto libel. Neither does simply reprinting what someone else has said. (Forexample, “‘The principal used school buses for a familyvacation,’ said John Doe.”)


Can student media refuse to publish a lawfuladvertisement? Yes, as long as students ‘ and students alone’ are responsible for rejecting the ad. Where public school officials,including an adviser, play a role in refusing the ad, the law can get a bitmurky since they are government officials subject to the First Amendment. Butstudents are private individuals and can accept or reject ads for virtually anyreason. Student media at private schools are not subject to First Amendmentrestrictions and can generally accept or reject advertisements.

Are student media responsible for the content of classified ads?Print-based student media ‘ and specifically the editor-in-chiefand media staff directly involved with the ad ‘ are responsible for alladvertising that appears in their publication regardless of whether they createdit. The original author of the piece is also responsible, but once print mediapublish content, they are on the hook if the ad is defamatory or invadesprivacy.

Can we use an ad from a store or restaurant that sells alcohol?Generally, you have the right to publish only accurate, non-misleadingads that promote lawful goods and services. Since most high school readers arenot of legal drinking age, you may have a hard time arguing that your ad isprotected speech. But surveys have shown that most readers of college studentmedia are over 21, for whom drinking is a lawful activity. Informing them ofdrink specials or advertising a sale on beer should be fully protected. Ahandful of states have regulations that may establish roadblocks for alcohol adsin college media, but they are gradually being challenged in court. There is noproblem for either college or high school student media to publish an ad for astore or restaurant that happens to sell alcohol where the ad makes no referenceto alcohol.


Is my newspaper legally responsible for onlinecomments?Generally no. The Safe Harbor of the Communications Decency Actsays that no provider of a Web site is responsible for text provided by anon-staff user, except in cases of copyright infringement. There’s aseparate safe harbor provision in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act thatrequires you to fill out a form and pay a one-time fee with the CopyrightOffice, but if you do that, text in comments posted by members of the publicshouldn’t create any liability for the publication. Remember, though, thatinformation posted by staff members wouldn’t fall under the safeharbor.


Do I have to give a reason for asking for informationunder a Freedom of Information request? Generally, you do not have todisclose your purpose for requesting public records.

Can I, as a student reporter, violate Family Educational Rights andPrivacy Act (FERPA)? Where it applies, the federal Family EducationalRights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restricts only school officials or those actingas an “agent” for the school ‘ not student journalists ‘from disclosing information about students without student (or parental, if thestudent is a minor) consent. Student journalists are not school employees oragents of the school and are not subject to FERPA’s restrictions.

I am a student journalist at a private school, can I use Freedom ofInformation laws? Absolutely! You can submit requests to obtaininformation from public agencies. However, because your school is private, itwill likely not be subject to your state’s FOI laws, and you’ll needto look elsewhere for information about it or school administrators. While yourschool may not be required to hand over records about its cafeteria inspection,the government agency that conducted the inspection will have to release thereport. Also, there are “pockets” of both state and federal law thatrequire the disclosure of reports or documents compiled by private schools.

Newspaper theft

What should we do if someone steals our freenewspapers? While the evidence is still warm, gather information aboutthe theft. Determine how many copies were taken. Where were they taken? Werethere witnesses or cameras? Is there information regarding the thieves’motives? If you have reason to believe thefts may still be occurring, dispatch aphotographer to take pictures. As soon as you have established basicinformation, contact campus and/or local law enforcement officials to file aformal police report and to ask for assistance in tracking down the thieves. Ifyou need help convincing them that the theft of “free” newspapersis, in fact, a crime, the Student Press Law Center has collected documents fromsuccessful prosecutions of newspaper thieves on our Web site.

High school censorship

Does Hazelwood mean my principal canprior review my school newspaper? This is a difficult question to answerbecause Hazelwood and prior review aren’t directly related. Priorreview means only looking at the newspaper before it is published. In mostcases, a school has the right to institute prior review, except where it isdoing so in retaliation for content that was previously published, or, in somestates, where the newspaper is totally independent. But Hazelwood reallytalks about when a school can engage in prior restraint ‘ that is, whenthe school can actually remove content from the newspaper. Answer: only if theschool has a legitimate educational reason.

College censorship

Student Government just cut thepaper’s budget in half. Isn’t that a First Amendmentviolation?It depends. First question: Is student government even a”state actor” subject to the First Amendment?Luckily, mostcourts say yes ‘ especially when its role is allocating student feedollars. Second: is the newspaper taking a hit because of its editorial content?The state can’t penalize editors’ content decisions by denyingstudent activity fee support (at least, as long as the content is legal). Budgetdecisionmakers often hide behind the pretext of “quality,” but if “quality” is a smokescreen for punishing the publication’sviewpoint, that’s unlawful. One key that courts will look for: Did thepublication take a hit grossly out of whack with comparable studentorganizations?

Campus crime

What police records can I make my college giveme?At a public college, the answer is easy: Your state open records actalmost surely makes “incident reports” a matter of public record(and police can’t redact names just because the suspects or victims arestudents). At a private college, you might still get the benefit of theopen-records act if (like at Yale University) your police department is actingas an arm of the local government. But at any campus, you can at least demandthe “Clery Act log,” a factual summary of all serious crimes thatmust be kept current within the last 48 hours.

Privacy Invasion

Do I need written permission to use a photoor a name of a minor? Not if it’s for news purposes, thoughwritten permission doesn’t hurt. You need permission from the copyrightholder if you didn’t take the photo, of course, and you need writtenpermission if you want to use the name or photo for advertising purposes. Butthe Supreme Court has said that it’s legal to print the name of a minorwhen the name is “lawfully obtained” and “truthfullyreported.”

Can I publish a minor’s name online? Yes. Despite rumorsto the contrary, having your name posted online doesn’t typically lead tohorrifying consequences, and there isn’t a law designed to avoid thenonexistent consequences.

Do I have to ask permission to tape record a conversation? A meeting?It depends on state law. Check out “Can We Tape?” from theReporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, online athttp://www.rcfp.org/taping/index.html.


Can I use music or videos in our student broadcastor podcast? It depends on how/why you are using it. As a general rule,if you didn’t create the music yourself, you must obtain permission fromthe copyright owner to use the music in any way. Contrary to popular myth, thereis no “30-second” or “200-word” exception that allowsyou to use a set amount of copyrighted material without permission. Thisincludes the use of background music. The only true exception to the rule is

“fair use.” The Fair Use exception allows for the limited use ofcopyrighted material without permission when engaged in bona fide newsreporting, commentary or critique, or in-class educational instruction. Forexample, a review of a CD on your TV news program could be accompanied by ashort clip from a music video.


Can I use a picture from the Internet, Facebook orMySpace in the newspaper or yearbook? Sometimes, but not usually, andyou need to do some research to figure out whether or not you can. There are twoprimary areas of the law you need to worry about: copyright and privacy. Fromthe copyright perspective, you need to be making a fair use of the work, or youneed permission from the owner.Check the SPLC Web site to read up on thesetopics ‘ they’re too long to do justice to here ‘ but as ageneral rule, unless you know who owns the image and how they’re using it,you can’t make a fair use. In other words, Google image search will almostnever provide a useful result.

Can I use a picture from the internet if I credit where it came from?This is a common misconception. As much as journalism cares aboutcrediting images, the law really doesn’t. Nothing in copyright law willgive you any greater right to use an image just because you credited it.It’s nice to credit it correctly, but it’s not something copyrightlaw has any interest in, at least as far as publications are concerned.

Can we use titles like “Days of Our Lives” as themes orheadlines in the yearbook? You can use the words, but using the wordsalong with images from the work you’re referencing could be a copyrightproblem. The reason is that, while a title itself is not protected by copyright,associating the title with images related to the theme of the underlying workcan serve to make the yearbook appear as a derivative work, and only a copyrightholder can lawfully make or authorize a derivative work. So “Days of OurLives” as a headline is fine ‘ but if you combine it with images ofan hourglass and drawings of actresses with big hair staring at strong-jawedactors, you might be in trouble.


Can my principal or university president forceme to turn over confidential information? Probably not, thoughthere’s not a lot of precedent. At a public institution, there’s nolegal authority for an administrator to compel an individual to disclose aconfidential source. The administrator would have to seek a court order. At aprivate school (outside of California), the school is bound only by the promisesit has made, and probably could throw someone out for refusing to turn over asource unless the school has its own rule to the contrary.

Do shield laws protect student journalists? That’s also astate-by-state question and one that’s evolving all the time. For whatit’s worth, the important thing is to be clear with your sources how faryou’re willing to go to protect their identity.


Should I know who my students’ confidentialsources are in a story? This is a case where ignorance really isbliss.The safest course is to agree in advance that students will notdisclose confidential sources even to the adviser, who may be pressured underthreat of firing to disclose the source to her supervisor. Unlike thereporters and editors, the adviser likely cannot invoke the protection of anewsgatherer’sshield privilege. (And students should neverleave identifying information about the source on school premises or on a schoolcomputer, where it can readily be discovered.)

What if I’m ordered to censor my students illegally?Unlessyou live in Kansas or California, which have state anti-retaliation laws, youcould put your job on the line if you disobey a direct order ‘ even oneyou suspect is illegal. If you can’t finesse your way around thesituation, and if you want to stay employed, you may have no choice but tocomply with the order ‘ but for your own protection, try to get the orderin writing and put on record that you disagree with it, in case you findyourself named in your students’ lawsuit.

Doesn’t the First Amendment protect me if I blow the whistle onillegal censorship?Probably not. The Supreme Court has said publicemployees have no protected right to complain about anything touching on theirown working conditions, and a journalism adviser complaining about howadministrators run the journalism program almost surely would fall outside theFirst Amendment today. This is why the responsibility for opposing censorshipultimately restswith the students, not the adviser.