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Stopping prior review one fight at a time

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Marie Miller, publications adviser in Fauquier County, Virginia, posted this to the JEA listserv today. With censorship and prior review constantly in the news, we thought her points should be repeated to show prior review can be prevented short of court battles.

Information about Miller’s situation can be found on the SPLC site and earlier reporting here.

The post

In these days when so many disputes involve censorship and restriction of student media, I wanted to share some good news about working with administrators to develop a workable publications policy that allows student publications to continue to practice sound journalism.

As background, last summer the Fauquier Co School Board adopted a very restrictive publications policy that decreed that student publications were not forums for student expression and that the principal was the editor in chief of all publications with students serving as assistants. This policy was promulgated by the Virginia Association of School Boards (VASB), a group that develops policy positions for a wide variety of issues. Apparently, a nearly identical policy has been adopted in surrounding jurisdictions (Fredricksburg and Culpeper). I learned about the policy in mid Sept. from another adviser who questioned whether she could allow her students to publish opinion pieces and editorials under it.

As the policy appeared to require prior review and we were about a week from publishing, my first step was to ask my principal when he planned to review the issue and to notify him that I would finish the year as adviser, but that I would not continue after that. My principal has always supported student press rights, has had faith in my ability to advise the paper, and has never wanted to exercise prior review. He forwarded my concerns to the superintendent’s office and what ensued was an intense series of emails, meetings, and negotiations.

Ultimately, the School Board adopted a revised publications policy on Dec. 14 designating student publications as limited forums for student expression subject to restraints on speech under the Tinker standard. Student leadership of the publications was restored and an appeals process was put in place under which students can challenge censorship by either a principal or an adviser. There are still some areas to be addressed (namely, the implication in the policy that ethical guidelines could be a basis for censoring student speech), but our newspaper continues to operate much as it always has — as a public forum.

Things that helped:

• From the start, Frank LoMonte of the SPLC was proactive and extremely helpful with advice and guidance both to me and my editor in chief. I cannot say enough good things about him and the SPLC.

• The JEA listserv provided invaluable background and support. Because of the list, I knew how student publications should operate and what progressive policies looked like. (I have also been teaching the fundamentals of student press law for the past six years, although I did not expect to have to draw on that background in this way)

•The support of my principal and the open-mindedness of the superintendent. We would not have gotten far without both. My principal was put in the middle of a conflict he didn’t want, but he supported the independence of the student newspaper. The superintendent was truly concerned with what was good for the students. He was impressed with the idea that prior review would lead to self-censorship even under the best of circumstances. He also voluntarily read the Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism published by Quill & Scroll. He was not concerned, however, that the county was assuming additional financial liability under the new policy, and this issue was a non-starter.

• The policy was not adopted in response to any recent controversy. The county simply did not have a policy and adopted the one recommended by professional organization.

• We are geographically close to Fairfax, that bastion of progressive education and top-notch publications. The revised policy is modeled on the Fairfax policy.

• The negotiations never got ugly. Everyone maintained a reasoned and reasonable approach, although the students were angry. The students started a petition and quickly gained over 200 signatures. They also formed a Facebook group. We wrote an article and published two editorials about the policy, and the local newspaper published an editorial about the low-key, silent way in which the initial policy was enacted. The SPLC contacted administrators who were reluctant to comment. Moderate pressure is probably a good thing, but it also could have hardened positions.

• Our paper has a good reputation in the community and has done fairly well in state and national evaluations, which makes administrators proud. One of our former editors, Caleb Fleming, was selected as the national collegiate reporter of the year this past fall. The program was developed under Peg Culley who was the adviser for 26 years and entrusted to me for the past six. Reputation and continuity of advisers were big pluses.

• Students are at a real disadvantage in these battles. Too often advisers are concerned for their own positions to challenge the decisions of the administration.

• Awards/recognition from outside groups are important. Groups like CSPA should continue to recognize good journalism from student publications that are not subject to prior review. Also, it would have been very helpful if the Virginia High School League (VHSL) had a policy discouraging prior review.

Miller indicated anyone wishing additional information could contact her at millermarie0227@GMAIL.COM

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