Back to School Checklist: “The Talk”

A fresh, new school year is upon us. The newsroom is more or less tidy, with story files nicely organized. The production schedule is taking shape and your students haven’t missed a deadline. Story ideas and yearbook themes flow freely, having had a full summer to simmer. No one is mad at you (yet).

But as we’re told, the time to prepare for an earthquake is before it hits. So along with enjoying the relative peace that August/September brings, this is also the time to lay some groundwork and prepare for the nine or so months that follow and the possibility of the Big One (or Big Two or Three or Four) that might follow a controversial story that riles a group of parents or a dust-up with the school board or basketball coach. Unfortunately, as any veteran student media adviser knows, dealing with Big Ones is part of the job. Preparing your students for such events before they happen should be a regular part of your back-to-school ritual.

As we ease into a new school year, we’ll use this space to briefly discuss some issues and potential trouble spots we’ve seen over the years, and to point out some SPLC resources of which you may be unaware that may help you and your students avoid the Big One (or at least be sufficiently prepared so that it perhaps it stays a “Little One”).

First on our Back to School Checklist: “The Talk.”

At the start of each year, not long after handing out the course syllabus, it is important to have a frank conversation with your students about the position in which you, as adviser, operate. You support them; you believe in them; you will always strive to do your best by them. But you — unlike the students themselves — are also a school employee. And you need to remind them that sometimes an employee has to do things they’d rather not (or not do things they’d like to do) simply because their employer tells them to. It’s important that students understand now — before the heat and emotion that comes with a censorship fight or some other big blow-up with school officials — that they must be willing and able to take the leadership role should it be necessary to challenge administrative action. It’s their publication. Courts have made clear that it is their legal rights — not the adviser’s — that are at stake. If a fight must be fought, it must be their fight.

Remind them, too, that employees often have to bite their lip. If a protest is to be staged, if parents are going to be asked to call district officials or if calls from local news media returned need to returned ,that’s not something you, as an employee, can do (or even encourage).

As part of this discussion (and — intentionally — at a time when there are no actual flames that your boss can accuse you of fanning) provide your students with a list of student media resources to which they can turn for help should you be required to take a step back. Give them contact information for your state student journalism group, the national Journalism Education Association, local newspaper editors or reporters. Make sure they have the number of the SPLC and understand that we can provide free legal assistance and guidance not only for help on a censorship matter but for any media-law question that might come up during the year. Pass on the link for the Censorship Checklist.

The bottom line is that students must be willing to stand up to protect their own free speech rights, and having you fired for insubordination does no one any good.