Kansas school board revises, approves student publications policy after initial 1A scare

Ben Henschel, Editor-in-Chief of The Harbinger, speaks out against the proposed policy at a July 8 school board meeting. Shawnee Mission School District / YouTube

UPDATE: The Shawnee Mission School Board in Kansas unanimously approved a policy on Aug. 12 that set lawful parameters for what student media in the district can and can’t publish. 

The final policy is a revision of an initial proposal introduced in July the school board that would have allowed administrators to censor any student publication if they deemed any material to be against the “educational mission” of the school. This initial policy drew criticism from students, the Student Press Law Center, American Civil LIberties Union and others who believed it violated Kansas law.

The approved policy only allows for censorship of student media “if the material is obscene, libelous, slanderous, creates a material or substantial disruption of normal school activity, or interferes with the operation of the school,” which is aligned with language in the Tinker v. Des Moines case that was decided by the Supreme Court in 1988.

Shawnee Mission School Board Member Patty Mach said the revised policy was “almost exactly” the language  suggested by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. Fellow board member Mary Sinclair said it “retains the language of the ACLU agreement verbatim.”

All district administrators were required to undergo First Amendment training by the ACLU of Kansas as a condition of the April settlement in a lawsuit filed by students against the school district over actions taken against students who staged a “March for Our Lives”  walkout in 2018. In addition to ending the rally and punishing some protestors, the camera of a student journalist was confiscated.

The training was held during a two-day leadership retreat for Shawnee Mission administrators over a week before the Aug. 12 board meeting. Mach says several board members attended.

Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand wrote a letter to the school board with guidelines on how to write a lawful student publications policy in July, which he said were similar to what the ACLU of Kansas suggested.

“So, we put together a letter with our suggestions, and they pretty much adopted those,” he said. “The ACLU recommendation was pretty much in line with what we were suggesting, too.” 

8/8/2019 Kansas school board revises proposed publications policy in response to student journalists’ concerns

KANSAS —  The Shawnee Mission School Board has revised a proposed student publications policy following opposition from student journalists and First Amendment advocates. The policy will have a second reading with any final revisions during an August 12 school board meeting.

The initial draft would have allowed school administrators to censor any student media if they found it was against the “educational mission” of the school. Now, the proposed policy only allows censorship “if the material is obscene, libelous, slanderous, creates a material or substantial disruption of normal school activity, or interferes with the operation of the school.” It can be read in its entirety here

Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand sent a letter to Superintendent Mike Fulton in July, noting “any publications policy should have three fundamental goals: (1) clearly informing students, publications advisers and school administrators of the boundaries of their respective rights and responsibilities, (2) creating a mechanism for encouraging the highest quality student journalism, and (3) complying with the law.”

“The school district should be very proud of Shawnee Mission School District’s student media.” Hiestand said in an interview. “Its [journalism] programs are nationally known and respected as amongst the strongest in the country. It would be a shame to create unnecessary obstacles or a climate that prevents SMSD’s young journalists from practicing the sort of meaningful and credible journalism they are known for.”

Ben Henschel was one of three student journalists who spoke against the initial policy during a July 8 school board meeting. Henschel, a senior and the co-editor-in-chief of The Harbinger at Shawnee Mission East High School, was concerned the policy was too broad and could allow administrators to censor anything they were unhappy with.

“Some of our principals have been trepidatious when approaching some of our articles, and they’ve requested for certain things to be taken down to bolster their image,” Henschel said.

But because of the 1992 Kansas Student Publications Act, The Harbinger has been able to keep controversial stories up even when administrators voiced discomfort with them. Kansas is one of 14 states with laws that protect the rights of student journalists.

Henschel said that after talking to members of the school board, he learned the language in the original policy was not created to censor traditional student newspapers, but an underground publication that was circulating around campus. The Eastonian was a non-school sanctioned newspaper with content that many students and faculty members found offensive. However, the proposed policy language would have extended to all student publications.

This is not the first time the Shawnee Mission School District, near Kansas City, has come under fire for restricting student journalists. In June 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed a lawsuit against the school district after a student journalist’s camera was confiscated at a March For Our Lives walkout at Shawnee Mission North High School in April 2018. The district settled with the plaintiffs in April 2019, under the condition they would implement a policy that protects student journalists’ rights to be at events that are open to the student body and to not have their reporting equipment confiscated.  

Grace Altenhofen is a Shawnee Mission alumna that signed on to the ACLU lawsuit, after witnessing the student’s camera being confiscated. She believes the student testimonies at board meetings were instrumental in getting the board to reevaluate the policy.

“It’s almost an entirely different policy from the one they drafted the first time. It doesn’t contain as much concerning language about exercising control over publications or being able to censor controversial material, but we still have a few concerns with it as far as the language goes,” said Altenhofen. 

“There are still parts that are pretty vague and that we feel could be interpreted wrong, but it’s definitely a better start than what we had before.” 

Eric Weslander, a media law attorney at Stevens and Brand LLP representing the Shawnee Mission student journalists, said that the revised policy is “definitely an improvement” from the initial language, but that he still wants the school board to make further changes, such as requiring principals to explain their decision to censor content. 

“What was alarming about the [initial] policy as proposed was that it seemed to be encouraging censorship by administrators, and it went far beyond what our settlement called for in terms of revisions to the policy,” said Weslander. “It was a step in the wrong direction.”

Henschel emphasized how important a free student press is to a public school campus.

“We’ve done some really important work that might ruffle some feathers, but that’s the work that should be encouraged, not stifled by the district and school administration,” he said. 

SPLC reporter Ginny Bixby can be reached at gbixby@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @Ginny_Bixby

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