JEA adopts new “censorship” definition

The Journalism Education Association Board of Directors at its national spring convention last month in Portland approved the adoption of new definitions for “Prior Review” and “Prior Restraint” intended to help clarify its existing policy statements generally condemning both practices as a poor way to teach young journalists. The new definitions also provide guidance to student media advisers trying to navigate the admittedly tricky line between advising/educating their students and censoring them.

The definitions are more practical than legal and seek to establish straightforward “lines” that should be easier for students, advisers and administrators to identify and, hopefully, follow.

One of the more helpful things about the JEA’s new definitions, however, is simply distinguishing between the two practices, which are often mistakenly lumped together as one and the same. In short, prior review is “reading only.” Prior restraint, on the other hand, is what most think of when they hear the word censorship. But the JEA Board spent a lot of time thinking about their definitions, so let’s look at theirs.

According the new JEA definitions:

Prior review occurs when anyone not on the publication/media staff requires that he or she be allowed to read, view or approve student material before distribution, airing or publication.

Prior restraint occurs when someone not on the publication/media staff requires pre-distribution changes to or removal of student media content.

The JEA rightly condemns the practice of prior review as educationally unsound and, in its new definition, labels prior review as a form of prior restraint that “inevitably leads the reviewer to censor and the student journalist to self-censor in an effort to assure approval.”

That part is true. If a school official insists on reading a student publication ahead of time, they will eventually try to censor it. I would like someone to prove me wrong on this, but I’ve never seen an established system of prior review that has ever remained a pure “reading only” practice.

However, under the law, distinguishing between prior review and prior restraint remains crucial. It is generally accepted that the Supreme Court, in its 1988 Hazelwood decision, said that high school (not college) officials could exercise prior review — again, reading only — of school-sponsored publications without written guidelines and they may be able to do so even if the publication is operating as a public forum unless school policy or state law prohibits it.  The authority of public school officials to engage in prior restraint, however, is always limited by the First Amendment. Whether those limits are imposed by a Tinker or Hazelwood-based standard, school officials never have unlimited license to engage in prior restraint (censorship).

One other area where the JEA definitions and the law diverge slightly — but importantly — is in their treatment of advisers. Under the law, advisers will be treated just like any other school official. In other words, an adviser who insists on reading copy prior to publication (or actually censoring) is legally no different from a principal or superintendent doing so. They are all going to be treated as school officials/employees.

In the real world, however, experienced, trained advisers that work closely with their students, offering suggestions for improvement — often after reading the content ahead of time — can be a valuable and welcome resource, something the JEA recognizes in excluding such “advising” from its definition of prior review. But even advisers, the definitions recognize, can go too far, and “when an adviser requires pre-distribution changes over the objections of student editors,” the definition states, “his/her actions then become prior restraint.”

Advising has always been something of a tightrope walk as advisers seek to balance the demands of being a teacher and school employee against the desire to be an advocate and trusted j-guru for their students.  And the new JEA definitions helpfully recognize that advising — particularly when it comes to prior review and recognizing the point at which advising becomes censorship — is, in many way, more art than science.