Student conduct in preparing controversial coverage spurred an attorney to change his mind and say he will work for a bill that protects both student journalists and their schools.
Don Austin, of a law firm that currently represents Puyallup, Washington, schools and was their counsel in the recent case involving Jagwire’s coverage of oral sex, said he would work for state legislation to guarantee student expression and still protect school systems, something he said he once opposed because he did not feel it gave schools enough immunity from lawsuits.
He said the cost of defending the lawsuit, nearly $250,000, the fact the jury found no invasion of privacy and no negligence on the part of the school system with students making content decisions, helped him see he should involve administrators in creating bulletproof immunity for schools – while still protecting students’ rights.
At one time, he said he did not believe students could successfully exercise control of publications.
“The kids convinced me,” he said of why his views had changed.
Austin said as part of the pre-trial briefings for the recent Jagwire case, he interviewed both adviser Kevin Smyth and his students.
“I went through and methodically evaluated his program,” Austin said. “I was impressed with the approach he and his students took” in regard to the process of reporting the oral sex stories. “Students acted as adults to do what they did.”
Austin said he wanted to “avoid future litigation” by working with school authorities and student expression supporters. He said those who have supported student free expression should know there is now a “different audience” to help work on this legislation.
The goal, he said, is to protect all parties.
Kathy Schrier, WJEA executive director, said Austin’s testimony favoring such legislation would be a huge help in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said she would like to see changes in language to protect all parties.
“Don Austin spoke against legislation last time,” First Amendment advocate and former Auburn High adviser Fern Valentine said, “but now realizes that is is the answer for both the students and school districts.”
Valentine said legislators will need to hear from school attorneys who support the legislation and can testify that a strong state law will not only insure students learn the most possible in their journalism classes but will also protect school districts from the expense of possible litigation.
WJEA president Vince DeMiero said he believes Austin is a convert.
“I truly believe if we nurture this relationship that it will be beneficial to both parties,” DeMiero said. “He’s busy, but he’s the first lawyer outside of the SPLC who I really think understands what we’re talking about. He’s incredibly focused and very intelligent. So, to have him on our side would be huge.”
Until legislation is again proposed, students in the Puyallup district and others around the state continue to fight against prior review and restraint. Check out information about the Puyallup student efforts, and about a new policy based on NEOLA standards at Seaholm High School. The NEOLA site, in a Webinar, talks about all four policy options referred to in the Seaholm article.
In my studies at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication back in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, I remember reading a fascinating article by the respected psychologist Daniel Goleman in which he identified a dramatic shift in communication – and he related it specifically to the news media.
Goleman argued that in order to survive, humans access information that they want to know as well as what they need to know. Funny thing is, Goleman explained that in the news media, these two distinct types of messages aren’t what you might think. Common sense would tell us that we humans would need to know information about impending disasters or catastrophes, and then want to know information about health care reform and economic policies. But, Goleman says, that’s not how it works. Instead, the way information is packaged and delivered to us, we desperately want and feel like we need to hear about car wrecks and oil spills, but we aren’t very interested in consuming information about the latest jobs bill or global environment change. That’s pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it?
Goleman says the reason is in what he calls the “Reptilian Brain” – you know, the flight or fight center left over from early humans. This is the part of the brain that acts almost entirely on emotion. Recent research suggests that our brains can process this type of information and react to it even before we can intellectualize it in any way. This is very useful if you’re trying to avoid touching a hot stove, but kind of annoying when you find out that a traffic jam is caused by rubber-neckers and not an actual accident.
To complicate matters, Goleman says the reason why our broadcasts, websites and newspapers are filled with so much “Reptilian News” is because we simply cannot help ourselves – we feel as though we have to watch it or listen to it or read it. In other words, we want to be assured that bad things are happening to somebody else, and not to us. After all, if we’re reading about it or watching it on TV, then it’s happening someplace else to someone else. Ah, the “Reptilian Brain” at its finest.
The problem is that this “Reptilian Brain” is taking a devastating toll on decision making in our public institutions – particularly in public schools when it comes to First Amendment issues. In nearly every case of a First Amendment crisis at an American high school in the past several years, I can almost universally point to the situation being made worse because somebody reacted with his or her “Reptilian Brain” instead of responding intellectually.
Therefore, I propose that we journalism educators do all we can to help school administrators, school board members, parents and legislators move from reaction mode into response mode.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
In the fall of 2008, The Puyallup (Wash.) School District enacted its version of the atrocious NEOLA policy and regulation known as “3220/3220R” largely in reaction to pressure following the publication of articles on oral sex by the Emerald Ridge High School’s JagWire. But, just last month, courageous student editors from the district’s three high schools are now asking the PSD, the school board and their legal advisers to respond to the reality of the situation.
I believe the distinction between a reaction and a response is important to make. Let’s agree that accepted definitions of these terms would be:
- Reaction: A physical or emotional reply to a situation or event; consistent with the “fight or flight” foundations in Goleman’s “Reptilian Brain.”
- Response: A verbal or written answer; a more highly evolved and intellectual reply.
The American writer and philosopher Orison Swett Marden once said: “Most of our obstacles would melt away if, instead of cowering before them, we should make up our minds to walk boldly through them.” If I have learned anything in my adult life it’s that making critical decisions in reaction to something often solves an immediate problem (this is the reptilian brain serving its purpose), but that decisions made in response to something usually result in effective long-term solutions (this is our intellectual brain at its best).
Clearly, if public institutions and school officials react to every apparent and/or potential threat, those institutions and those officials soon lose all integrity and credibility. Just think about what 3220/3220R does: It reacts to the threat of a lawsuit by enacting policies that are in direct opposition to the very charter and mission of a public secondary school.
On the other hand, institutions and school officials who effectively respond to real and perceived threats engender confidence and trust. And that’s precisely what a new student expression policy could do for everyone in the Puyallup School District – thoughtfully protect the rights and responsibilities of all students and educators, while also protecting the long-term interests of the school district.
Now that’s a win-win-win situation I think all parties can support. Let’s support what’s going on in Puyallup and urge other courageous students, administrators and community members to respond in a similar fashion.
The Right to Write crew from Puyallap, Wa., was listed today in the NCTE INBOX news clips.
Students Decry Censorship
Student journalists in Puyallap, Washington, are fighting for “The Right to Write.” The Olympian, May 24, 2010
Television station KOMO recently reported the May 24 Puyallup, Washington, school board meeting where student journalists are trying to reverse the board’s prior review policies.
Like the other links posted here in the last couple of days, this one can add to the First Amendment discussion, not only about the issues reported but about the comments and the perspectives that drive them. The comments deserve special attention.
If we are to really develop a community of support for First Amendment issues in education we have to create a climate more accepting of the importance of free and responsible expression. That climate does not stop at the end of the school year and magically begin again in the fall.
On another point, the reporter here missed a good chance for a question the village ought to think about: if Don Austin, the school’s attorney, really thinks legislation might be a solution to a theoretical liability issue, why has he spoken publicly against past efforts at state legislation protecting student expression – and hence schools?
To read about how one columnist found a school squandered a First Amendment teaching moment, read this article by Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.
As we have seen, schools all too often move to squelch instead of teach.
A tip of the hat to Mark Newton for the link.