“The whole world is [so not] reading this!”

It’s 2010, and most high school student newspapers aren’t accessible online. Even the ones that are often are limited to the static presence of a PDF of the print edition. And — news flash — it’s not because teenagers don’t know how to use computers.

It’s because so many school administrators perceive the Internet as a frightening place. When the concern is for the safety of students from predators it is understandable, though (according to an authoritative study by Harvard’s Berkman Center) perhaps overblown. But often the administrators’ concern is not safety at all, but protection of the school’s PR image and their own.

The rationale that journalism students and teachers often hear is some variation of, “You can’t put that on the Internet — the whole world will be reading it.”

Eh, maybe not so much.

The Journalism Education Association’s Digital Media unit has been tracking online readership of high school student newspapers, and the early findings are entirely unsurprising, except perhaps to certain high school principals: the whole world isn’t reading student newspapers online. In fact, not many people are.

A JEA Digital Media summary of data gathered from 20 online student newspapers in January indicates that, in almost every case, the number of unique visitors to the newspaper’s website is at or below (and often substantially below) the number of students in the school. Only one publication — the Paly Voice at Palo Alto (Calif.) High School, the most “wired” community in America — has readership that is exponentially larger than the student body.

This is an important point that should not be lost in the hysteria over schools’ attempts to constrain students’ online publishing. Student news sites and blogs are intensely local. They have an audience that is almost entirely comprised of the same circle of people who’d be reading the information on paper or hearing it face-to-face. Though the information is theoretically accesible everywhere, “The Jay Leno Show” was theoretically accessible everywhere, and nobody looked at that either. (And, to be realistic, what practical harm does it do to the school even if half the population of Kuala Lumpur is clicking on the newspaper?)

More research is desperately needed, not just as to who is reading what students write online, but also, how those readers are pereceiving what they read based on where they read it. In the absence of good — and widely distributed and accepted — research, schools are enacting online-speech policies informed largely by myths.

Look no further than last month’s ill-considered ruling in J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, a case involving school punishment for content a student posted off-campus on a social networking site. In J.S., a two-judge majority of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that a Pennsylvania student’s rights were not violated when her school suspended her for ridiculing her principal on a (privacy-protected) MySpace page.

The outcome was heavily influenced by the judges’ perception that — evidence to the contrary — words posted on the Web are inherently more dangerous and more widely accessible than words spoken or printed on a page:

“Undoubtedly, students have made fun of or made distasteful jokes about school officials, free from the consequences of school punishment, either out-of-earshot or outside the school context since the advent of our modern educational system. However, due to the technological advances of the Internet, J.S. and K.L. created a profile that could be, and in fact was, viewed by at least twenty-two members of the Middle School community within a matter of days.”

Golly, 22 whole people. What a miracle this Internet thing is — thanks to technology, what used to take half of a lunch period can now be done in three days.