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Don’t let ‘funny things’ happen
on the way to your forum

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by Stan Zoller, MJE
sprclogoI can’t help but wonder if Pseudolus and Marcus Lycus had been journalism educators if a funny thing would have happened on the way to the forum.

For you nonmovie buffs, Pseudolus, played by the late Zero Mostel and Marcus Lycus, played by the equally late Phil Silvers, were leads in the comedy play and movie, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a slapstick comedy about Rome.

Had they been J teachers or advisers, it’s likely one of their daunting tasks would have been, aside from reserving hotel rooms for a JEA conference, determining what kind of forum they wanted to help students establish for their student media.

Sounds simple, yes?  Actually, no.

Many scholastic media outlets appear to come up short when developing and posting an editorial policy.  It appears that common practices are to:

  • Just call a publication “a forum.”
  • Call it an open forum.
  • Call it a limited-open forum.

Or if all else fails,

  • Not have a policy at all.

For the record, none are acceptable.   So what’s the solution?  Obviously, develop a policy that your readers can easily find and understand.  A media level editorial policy generally includes a mission statement, a letters to the editor policy, guidelines for submitting guest essay and, of course, a pronunciation as to what kind of forum your media is.

It’s not a good idea to have your media be an ‘open forum’ because, technically, that would mean you’ll accept any and everything, which could make your media a wild west show. Besides, your building is not an open forum, so you cannot be something that your school is not.

The trend about 15 years ago was for school media to be considered ‘limited open forums,’ but it wasn’t clear as to how limited the forum would be and who would establish those limits.

In the fourth edition of the Student Press Law Center’s “Law of the Student Press,” the discussion regarding limited public forum says the interpretation in “recent court rulings” is that the term ‘limited public forum’ “…has become practically meaningless.”

The book explains that “…in the middle tier of forums – a “designated” public forum – the government’s ability to regulate the content of speech is extremely limited.  The book further adds that “Only where a compelling justification exists, and the restriction is narrowly designed so as not to limit more speech than necessary, will a regulation is narrowly designed so not to limit more speech than necessary, will a regulation be upheld as constitutionality permissible.”  The entire discussion about limited open forums can be found on pages 52-53 of the fourth edition.

While legal eagles are likely to continue refining the guidelines for establishing a specific forum for student media, it is safe to say designated forums are the best options for student expression and generally (a key word) give student journalists the support they need to produce free and journalistically responsible student media.

The compromise, so it seems, is to have scholastic media be “designated forums of student expression.” The intent is to clearly establish that the media, print or digital, is not only the source of information for a student community, but also the place where students can voice their opinions.

While legal eagles are likely to continue refining the guidelines for establishing a specific forum for student media, it is safe to say designated forums are the best options for student expression and generally (a key word) give student journalists the support they need to produce free and journalistically responsible student media.

Examples of editorial policies can be found at SPLC.org or at the JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission’s web site, JEASPRC.org.

It’s essential that you and your student media staff research, establish, write and include a comprehensive editorial policy in every issue and on every student digital media site.

Because the last thing you want to end up with is comedy tonight.

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