By Kevin Smyth
Hazelwood stories: When I joined JagWire in September 2007 as a 51-year old adviser with no advising background, and limited experience as a student journalist, I had no idea I’d become a poster boy for “things that can go wrong your first year as adviser.” It’s been a difficult story, one that’s not finished, but I have hope better days are ahead.
In 2007, JagWire was an award-winning newsmagazine, attracting knowledgeable, talented writers. They took on some important edgy topics including pornography and student gambling. Considered an open forum for student expression under the rules enumerated in the Hazelwood decision, JagWire was entirely directed by students, which occasionally resulted in disagreements with Principal Brian Lowney. But it also paid off with state and national awards.
When I took over in 2007 I had a staff that was large, experienced, and led by a student editorial board that was enthusiastic and knew a lot more about running the paper than I did. In January 2008 JagWire proceeded with plans for an issue on oral sex. It was a serious focus topic with articles on student attitudes, student health, and district health education related to this topic.
It also included student interviews that detailed their experiences, and, with their permission, named names. Needless to say, JagWire 8.5 provoked considerable controversy. It won a best of show award from the Washington Journalism Education Association for 2008.
It won two additional prizes, though much less desirable. In the spring of 2008 the Puyallup School District was sued for invasion of privacy, negligence, and intentional infliction of harm relating to the publication of student names. The following September the school district informed us we lost our open forum status. JagWire and the other high school newspapers in our district would be subject to prior review and prior restraint.
Since the fall of 2008, JagWire struggled with the loss of our forum status and the independence it insured. Some of the problems were logistical. How could we meet our deadlines while insuring Mr. Lowney approved our work? Others were far more substantial.
During the 2009-10 school year it was as if the paper was reviewed by the lawyers representing the district. Our case was headed for trial in the spring, and JagWire was enveloped in an aura of tension and anxiety. Our issue on censorship in the fall was confiscated with a resulting loss of ad revenue.
Some of my students’ best work ever was penciled out for fear it was too controversial. Meetings with an increasingly uncomfortable principal ended in tears and frustration. Protests and appeals resulted in phone calls to lawyers. This was not the way to run a newspaper.
In the years that followed, it was as though JagWire lost its heart. Each year the paper produced some fine student journalists. We did eight issues per year. We traveled to state and national conventions.
My kids produced fine work and we won our fair share of prizes in write off competitions. Though I continued to promote the view JagWire was their forum and I promised to support them any way I could, the paper lost its edge. Students questioned taking on controversial or cutting edge issues when their work could simply be eliminated.
When Mr. Lowney, never an enthusiastic enforcer, lamented that he missed the edginess of the old days, I responded morosely, “They’ve been trained.”
In the spring of 2010 the JagWire case went to trial.
In a 10-2 verdict the jury found in favor of our paper and my students. One of the chief defenses used by our legal team was that our paper was run as an open forum, with students accepting the responsibility for what they wrote. The court determined JagWire was a limited public forum.
When the case was appealed to Washington Court of Appeals Division II, the appellate justices affirmed this finding. Plaintiffs’ counsel, contending that the “open forum” is a unicorn, a kind of myth that does not protect student press rights filed its petition with the Washington State Supreme Court in September 2012 to overturn the unanimous appellate ruling. (Ed. note: The Washington State Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal)
In the fall of 2012 I am encouraged by my delightful staff and talented editor- in-chief. There are rumors afoot there is interest in several controversial topics relevant to school climate here at Emerald Ridge High School.
We have a new district superintendent. There is discussion of taking the paper online beginning with a blog. Despite the district’s legal success and a new leader, it isn’t clear the restoration of our forum status is on the horizon.
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.
For an interesting and detailed article about the latest information in the ongoing battle against administrative censorship, check out today’s article in the News Tribune.
Be sure to read the comments. Students who need end-of-the-year activities might find this an issue worth comment.
One of the story’s points deals with the district’s attitude toward prior review as a way of protecting itself.
(Superintendent Tony) “Apostle, the Puyallup superintendent, declined to speak to The News Tribune. He did provide a copy of a letter he sent to students, saying the School Board does not intend to rescind its prior review rule. He said district lawyers have urged the board to retain the rule unless students and their parents agree to be financially liable for future legal claims,” the story reported.
The story also indicated student journalist attempts to report on the trial were themselves censored.
“Student journalist Allie Rickard withdrew her article after a district lawyer wanted to remove a direct quote and insert a sanitized version,” the News tribune reported. “The lawyer, Mike Patterson, also told Rickard that she could not include the names of the four student plaintiffs – even though they are part of the public record and had been published elsewhere, including in The News Tribune.
“Lawyers also asked Rickard to eliminate a sentence that explained a controversial legal concept in the trial.”
A school spokesman said the changes were not to censor but correct.
by Fern Valentine
(Update: See related story.)
As many may remember, in 2008, the Puyallup School District, whose publications had been open forums for over 20 years, was sued over an article in the Jagwire, Emerald Ridge High School’s newspaper. The district immediately instituted prior review despite vocal protests at Board Meetings.
The district won the lawsuit last month and students at all three high schools decided to fight to get prior review revoked and new open forum policies instituted. Their advisers and principals had been instructed to remain hands off on any policy issues.
The four young editors formed a Facebook Group. They met with students and parents at the public library and asked for support. They were careful not to involve any school district employees. They asked the superintendent Dr. Tony Apostle and the School Board to meet with them to revise the restrictive policy.
The superintendent responded he was willing to meet with them and work to create an open forum policy so long as any policy instituted made it clear the district would have no liability for what is published in the school papers. He forwarded the letter to the local media so the editors decided to send out the following press release:
May 16, 2010
Controversy continues over censorship in Puyallup School District
Students organize movement to lobby school board to work collaboratively for revision of policy; press lawyer speaks out against censorship
PUYALLUP — Censorship of school newspapers in the Puyallup School District has led students to form an organization, Fight for the Right to Write, to change the restrictive district policy and regulation. Policy 3220 and Regulation 3220R give the district the powers of prior review and prior restraint over the content of the student newspapers.
On May 3, the students held a meeting at the Puyallup Public Library to inform the public of their cause and what they aim to accomplish. Currently, FFTRTW is rallying community support for their cause and asks supporters to sign their petition to urge to school board to schedule a collaborative meeting with the students.
The students sent emails to the PSD School Board Members and Superintendent Tony Apostle. They have since received a response from Apostle that expressed an openness to working with the students to craft a new policy. Apostle stated in his letter that the students must agree to the single condition that the student journalists and their parents assume financial liability for the content of the papers. This effectively means that the former liability standards of an open forum would be reinstated.
“We will all continue to practice responsible and ethical journalism regardless of any policies that include prior review,” Allie Rickard, Focus Editor of JagWire, said. “What we do want to make clear is that the quality of excellent student journalism that the PSD has been known for in the past cannot continue if the district insists on upholding 3220R and censoring content that does not violate the terms of the regulation. We simply want to be able to write and report on the news, on the truth, without the burden of review and censorship that Regulation 3220R has subjected us to.”
In the latest issue of JagWire, the student-run newsmagazine of Emerald Ridge High School, the most prominent story is only five words long: “This story has been censored.” The article that was supposed to appear in the paper covered the conclusion of the recent lawsuit, MRB vs Puyallup School District.
Allie Rickard, the reporter who wrote the article, decided to withhold the story from being printed after it was censored by Mike Patterson, the attorney hired to represent the district in the trial. This decision was reached following lengthy discussion and negotiation with principal Brian Lowney, JagWire advisor Kevin Smyth, editor Amanda Wyma and district Executive Director of Communications Karen Hansen.
“Patterson’s decision to censor multiple parts of my article was disheartening because it served to exemplify the illegalities the current policy and regulation attempt to vindicate,” Rickard said. “Endeavoring to report on an important event in a respectful, truthful, and well-researched manner should not have brought about this censorship.”
The content of the article that was censored was threefold. The plaintiffs’ names, a quote from Don Austin, attorney for the PSD, and a sentence explaining the meaning of a limited forum were all censored by Patterson.
Mike Hiestand, a lawyer for the Student Press Law Center — a nonprofit group near Washington, D.C. that provides legal help to student media — said that this censorship violates the First Amendment.
“Having government officials read a newspaper before it goes to press and then ordering the editor not to publish accurate, lawful, straightforward information disclosed during a public trial is precisely why we have a First Amendment,” Hiestand said. “We don’t want government officials (or their lawyers) dictating what they think we should and should not know.”
All three high schools in the PSD were informed by Hansen that their coverage of the trial would be prior reviewed by Patterson, instead of being reviewed by the principal of each respective high school, as is the customary practice under Regulation 3220R.
3220R was enacted shortly after the lawsuit was filed against the district. This regulation makes all student activity and expression within the district subject to prior review and restraint.
Since the adoption of 3220R in October 2008, the level of censorship has never reached the level now being experienced by student journalists this year. Four out of the six issues of JagWire have been censored to some extent from singular words to entire stories. The Viking Vanguard, of Puyallup High School, has faced censorship of one graphic and two articles and The Commoner, of Rogers High School, has yet to be censored.
All three papers have struggled to deal with increasing self-censorship from wary staff members.
“Self-censorship is the most detrimental force student journalists suffer from,” Megan Thompson, In-Depth Editor of The Commoner, said. “Our staffs will rebuke valid ideas during brainstorming without even realizing they are self-censoring.”
After the jury found in favor of the PSD in the lawsuit, student journalists began to discuss organizing a movement to work with the district to change 3220R. From this discussion, Fight for the Right to Write was born in late April.
“My adviser has always told us that we aren’t just ‘student journalists,’ we are professionals that just so happen to be students. I strongly believe that all of the PSD papers operate very professionally, so when we decided to fight the censorship that is putting a limit to our education, we decided to work as a team,” Rebecca Harris, Editor-in-Chief of The Viking Vanguard, said. “I called up everyone within a day of the jury’s decision.”
The recent censorship of Rickard’s article has served to reinforce to the students that now is the time to ask to school board to work with them to formulate a new policy since the current one has now been shown to be flawed.
“This latest occurrence of censorship within our publication has only reiterated why we have been and will continue to fight,” Wyma said. “Watching valuable and informative quotes and stories being stripped away from the paper and, ultimately out of the hands of our readership, is one of the most frustrating and unfortunate things to witness.”
For more information on the group, contact:
JagWire, Emerald Ridge High School
Editor in Chief
The Viking Vanguard, Puyallup High School
The Commoner, Rogers High School
Editorial Board, A&E Editor
JagWire, Emerald Ridge High School
Fight for the Right to Write
www.fightfortherighttowrite.com – under construction
Facebook & Twitter – Search Fight for the Right to Write
For an update on the Puyallup, Washington, “oral sex coverage,” go to this SPLC Newsflash.
The SPLC reports the judge in the case “issued a confusing ruling in which she determined that The Jagwire was a “limited public forum,” but said that it was nevertheless subject to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood ruling, which allows school officials to censor student speech when they can demonstrate a reasonable educational justification.”
Observers expect a decision by the end of the week.
Reading information available so far should make for interesting class discussion.