Pa. district’s news media policy avoids restrictive school board association ‘model’

PENNSYLVANIA — After press advocates last year raised concerns about a policy that could have restricted students and staff from speaking to the media without approval, the Wilson School District adopted a less restrictive policy.

The school board adopted a revised “News Media Relations” policy at its Dec. 20 meeting. Gone from the final policy is a passage restricting staff members and students from giving “school information or interviews requested by the media representatives without prior approval of the District’s communications representative and/or his/her designee.”

Tracy Caputo Markle, spokeswoman for the district, said the Pennsylvania School Boards Association recommends that language to school districts that wish to update their policies.

“The initial policy was received by Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and the whole purpose of us putting it on the agenda is to have a number of readings in order to go through and revise it,” she said. “That’s exactly what we ended up doing. If we had come up with it from scratch it would probably look like it ended up looking.”

She said the school board didn’t agree with everything in the proposed policy and “that’s why we chose to change it.” The policy went through three readings at school board meetings before being adopted.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he is relieved the district changed the “heavy-handed” proposed policy.

“It’s amazing that a state school board association in America would even think about putting its name on that kind of a policy as a quote-unquote ‘model,’” he said. “Schools don’t ‘own’ their students and they have absolutely no business eavesdropping on what they say to the media.”

Part of the adopted policy does require authorization for the media to photograph personnel or students during the day; however, it also specifies this “does not apply to news media who are taking photos at extracurricular events.”

The next part of the policy says: “Photographs, moving pictures or videotapes of a controversial nature, or that are questionable with regard to individual rights of privacy, shall not be sanctioned.”

Markle said this does not mean that pictures will be subject to prior review by the school district before they can be published.

“We do not ask for authority over that — we’re specifically talking about during the school day,” she said. “If a reporter was to come in and there were photos that are being taken, we just need to make sure we authorize them and know who is here in the building and what the purpose is.”

Markle said this is mainly due to a number of students who have “do not photograph” requests on file at the district’s schools.

LoMonte said he still thinks it’s troubling the language about “controversial” photos remained in the policy.

“What does a ‘controversial’ photo even mean? We’ve unfortunately seen schools seize student journalists’ cameras and delete their photos because the students were trying to document vandalism or gang graffiti on their campuses,” he said. “If the rule is intended to prevent photos of kids with do-not-photograph orders on file, then that’s exactly what it should say and nothing more. This rule just invites abuse.”