Pa. school district considers banning unapproved media interviews with students, staff

PENNSYLVANIA — Press advocates have raised concerns over aproposed Wilson School District policy that would prohibit students and stafffrom speaking with members of the media without district approval.

The policy states that staffmembers or students “shall not give school information or interviewsrequested by the media representatives without prior approval of theDistrict’s communications representative and/or his/her designee.”

Tracy Caputo, spokeswoman for the school district, wrote in an e-mail thatthe new policy was drafted because the existing one had not been updated since1995.

Caputo wrote that the Pennsylvania School Boards Association recommendsupdated policy language for school districts to use and this policy has beenadopted in other school districts across Pennsylvania.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association was notavailable for comment before press time.

However, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewspaperAssociation, said the policy is not only a barrier to the press, but a barrierto the district’s students and staff as well.

“It’s very broad, and I don’t know if that’s howthey intended it,” she said.

Melewsky said the policy presents constitutional and practicality issues– for instance, a high school quarterback could not be interviewed after aFriday night football game without the district’s approval. Instead,newspapers and other media outlets would have to wait until the following Mondayto get the interview approved.

Extracurricular activities outside of school are public forums and mediarequests will be handled through the advisers or coaches, Caputo wrote.

“The Communication Director serves as the initial district contact soas to allow school personnel to focus on their primary educational duties, andto ensure consistent, accurate and up-to-date district information is beingdisseminated to the media,” she wrote.

Additionally, Caputo wrote that the policy would not apply to interviewswith student media since the publications are considered “schoolfunctions.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said,legally, there is no way the school district can try to control what studentsand staff say off campus.

LoMonte added that although the school district says the policy onlyapplies during school hours on campus, the policy’s language does not.

“I’m not sure what the need is for a policy like this,”he said. “Someone needs to ask what sort of information [the schooldistrict] is afraid would get out.”

Melewsky and Caputo said the school district is hesitant about thepolicy’s current wording.

Caputo wrote that the Wilson School District wants to tweak the policy toallow staff and students to freely express their opinions on issues.

“The School Board realizes that this policy needs revisions and isintended to be a policy that is in place to protect our students and staff, notto stifle their right to speak in any way, shape or form,” she wrote,adding board members’ opinions differ on specific policy language.

All policies gothrough three readings before the board votes.

“That is exactly why we have the three readings in place — toallow for thought, information collection and revisions before a policy isadopted,” Caputo wrote.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the policy was scheduled for a first reading. Caputo said she did not know if the district’s revisions to the proposal would be finished by the board’s Monday meeting. The SPLC regrets the error.