by Mark Goodman
Funny how cheerleaders get all the attention.
It would have been difficult to miss the coverage this past week of the cheer squad at Kountze High School in Southeast Texas and their fight over free expression. From a high school of a little more than 400 students in a town of about 2,100 people, their story made national news.
The story in a nutshell, for those who did miss it: cheerleaders at Kountze emblazoned banners they displayed at football games with religious messages.
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.
Those interested in a bit of real life government in action can follow the introduction of the Nebraska free expression legislation on Twitter at #LB898.
Follow along and see what is happening compared to legislation efforts in other states by comparing Nebraska’s bill with those of other states by using the SPLC library.
Nebraska’s bill can be seen at
http://www.netnebraska.org/publicmedia/capitol.html , hearing room #1525.
Student newspapers have two ways to avoid legal problems. Your students can never print anything controversial, creative or of interest to their readers, or you can teach your students how to write about controversy responsibly.
This responsibility begins long before the story is printed. Having your editors check the interview notes of the reporters can quickly reveal that the students haven’t talked to the all the right people to get a balanced story. It gives time to check out possible liability and to get permission to use quotes in place.
It also prevents procrastination, always a problem for all of us.
Students often only talk to their friends, or, worse yet, use the internet and don’t localize the story by talking to students, administrators or local sources. Brainstorming sources and questions can help get students off in the right directions.
Have your editors negotiate reasonable individual story deadlines for these notes and stick to them. Extending deadlines needs to be done ahead of time and in extreme cases only. If a student isn’t “dead” for missing a deadline, deadlines don’t mean a thing.
Interview skills are a sellable skill and one that journalism classes teach well. You might remind your administrators that, although they might prefer not to answer students’ questions about controversial topics, the students are really learning important skills that will help them in all sorts of situations throughout their lives.
Role playing interview situations with beginners can teach those skills and can be loads of fun as well.
Adding “interview notes” to the list of deadlines can help get things moving early and make sure that stories are well balanced and have the important information that will avoid legal problems when the story is published.
Fern Valentine, MJE
Although we’ve walked around the edges of this topic, no one has ever done good quantitative research on the correlation between credibility and censorship. Maybe it’s time someone did to prove my point….
If your students can use AP style and know the difference between a pica and a pronoun, do they have more freedom to publish what they think is important for their audience to hear? If your administrator thinks YOU have a good handle on the basics of journalism, know something about law and ethics and can model vital interviewing skills, does he or she stay out of the publications room?
Granted, some recent high-profile cases seem to indicate no matter how much experience or how many degrees the teacher/adviser has, some principals and school boards are not happy with hard-hitting coverage. But I’m still willing to bet that a little credibility goes a long ways to hanging onto student First Amendment freedoms. If nothing else, it helps bolster the argument that students are learning solid lessons and not simply filling publication pages with fluff. Administrators DO want students to learn more, right?
With that in mind, it may be time to consider showing what you know by earning the Certified Journalism Educator or Master Journalism Educator designation from the Journalism Education Association. These don’t replace whatever credentialing the various states require, but they just might be a little boost to show your bosses you know what you’re teaching.
Oct. 1 is the deadline to apply for the new and improved CJE test to be offered in Washington, D.C. in November. To find out more, check the Certification Commission pages on the JEA Web site.
Clearly, there’s a good reason JEA has both a Scholastic Press Rights Commission and a Certification Commission. Each in its own way works to support journalism teachers and media advisers.