MONTANA — The Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trusteesis considering a new student publications policy that it hopes will align thejournalism programs at all of its schools, but some worry the new policy tooseverely limits students’ work.
The proposed policy states that student publications are not public forumsand that administrators will not tolerate material that is “libelous,obscene, invades the privacy of others, conflicts with the basic educationalmission of the school, socially inappropriate or inappropriate due to thematurity level of the students, or is materially disruptive to the educationalprocess.”
Elizabeth Kaleva, the school district’s attorney, wrote the policybut said the district will likely delay approving it until students and advisershave a chance to address the board with any concerns or suggestions.
Kaleva said the policy would help protect students’ First Amendmentrights and will be something she could point to when community members questionwhy the school did not censor an article with a particular point of view.
“It’s not common knowledge, frankly, that students have FirstAmendment rights,” she said. “And its not uncommon for people tosay, ‘Well, just shut them down.’ It’s hard for me to explainthat we can’t do that — and we don’t.”
But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidthe vague wording of the proposed policy is “unbalanced” and, unlesssignificantly revised, gives administrators a lot of leeway to censorstudents’ work.
” ‘Socially inappropriate’ has no legal definition andjust invites abuse by an administrator who wants to pull something he disagreeswith,” he said.
Wayne Seitz, the newspaper adviser at Hellgate High School since 1975, saidhe fears the new policy will bring more principal oversight, which would have anegative impact on the work the students do.
“It’s a chilling effect always when [students] have that infront of them,” he said. “They worry about the adviser getting introuble. They worry about themselves getting in trouble. So they shy away fromtopics instead of taking them on and dealing with them.”
Kaleva said the new policy is not a reaction to anything that happened withstudent media in Missoula County Public Schools but is a part of thedistrict’s efforts to update all of its policies.
The current policy leaves it up to the individual schools to develop adecision-making structure for student publications, which results in a lack ofconsistency among schools as to what content is allowed, she said.
“I guess what we’re trying to do is [make it so] that itshouldn’t really matter who the adviser is,” Kaleva said. “Itit’s OK in one school, it should be OK in another.”
The policy also requires that publications provide “an opportunityfor the expression of differing opinions” and gives administratorsauthority to “edit or delete material which is inconsistent with theSchool District’s educational mission.”