Clearing the fog

MYTH: You can’t use photos you find online.

REALITY: Taking a random photo from a Google image search is never agood idea, and including photo credit won’t get you out of a copyright claim.But that doesn’t mean free and fair use photos can’t be found online. Enter“Creative Commons” — a label photographers attach to images that can be usedwithout consent for noncommercial use when proper credit is given (but be sureto read the fine print). Got a story that could use a photo of President Obamaor some other government subject? Well, good news, because many federal .govwebsites have online photo libraries that are fair game.

MYTH: Go ahead and be ruthless with that April Fools issue. It’s aclear parody so there’s no legal trouble to worry about.

REALITY: This is questionable territory, so tread carefully. Inshort, an April Fools issue may be OK if no reasonable person would read it asfact. You might want to leave the funny business to comedians, but a paper canimplement safeguards to let readers in on the joke. A banner reading “AprilFools Parody” isn’t surefire protection from a libel suit, but it might help.Just remember that not everyone shares your idea of what’s funny.

MYTH: You can’t get in trouble for picking up all the campuspapers and dumping them — I mean, it’s not stealing if they’re free!

REALITY: This is theft and should be treated as such. The newspaperis out the printing and distribution costs, plus lost ad revenue. Thieves canface criminal charges for taking newspapers, and several have been successfullysued to recover damages. If the theft is done by a government actor,journalists have an additional claim for censorship. Publications shouldconsider putting a disclaimer in the paper that the first copy is free butadditional copies cost a nominal fee, perhaps 25 cents. While this isn’trequired, it reinforces for potential thieves that even though the newspapersare “free,” they do have value and stealing them is a serious offense. The SPLCmaintains a database of these thefts along with additional resources

MYTH: You can’t report that a student was suspended, or prettymuch anything they do at school, because of privacy laws.

REALITY: Not even close. Schools may mistakenly argue that the FamilyEducational Rights and Privacy Act prevents you from printing discipline oracademic information about students. Simply put, FERPA applies to schoolofficials, not student publications. It deals with information that comes fromsomeone’s school records, not things a person tells you voluntarily or that youlearn from some other source. If you broke into the school records office, youprobably have bigger problems to worry about. Otherwise, if you hear thisexcuse, someone’s mistaken — and it isn’t you.

MYTH: It’s not libel as long as you include “in my opinion” in thesentence and run it in the opinions section of the paper.

REALITY: There’s no magic phrase to get you off the hook fordefamation. If your “opinion” convinces people that an underlying fact is true,and it’s not, it could be libelous even though you called it “your opinion.”For example, writing, “In my opinion, principal Smith’s alcoholism is entirelyout of hand,” could be libelous. Your opinion is that it’s “out of hand,” butyou’re asserting a fact — that he’s an alcoholic. If he isn’t, you’ve got aproblem.

MYTH: You can’t take photos of or interview students at school withouta permission slip from their parents.

REALITY: Actually, you can. Minors can consent to an interview ifthey understand the consequences of what they’re doing. So unless you’requestioning someone with a disability or a really young student, you’re free torun what they tell you without parental permission — though it may be advisablein a few extreme cases. They can also consent to having their photo taken; andif you’re in a public space you likely don’t need their permission anyway.

MYTH: If a student takes a photo using the school’s camera, thenthe school owns the picture.

REALITY: If this is true, then millions of moms with drawings ontheir refrigerators made with school paper and school crayons are in possessionof stolen property. Copyright law recognizes that ownership belongs to theperson who created the photo, not the person who provided the materials. Theonly exception is where a contract transfers ownership or where thephotographer is a salaried employee. Neither is likely to be the case inschool.