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The fight to save Seattle’s scholastic journalism: A good story with a positive outcome

Posted by on Nov 16, 2011 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

By Vince DeMiero
Nov. 15, 2011

Student press rights are alive and well in the Seattle School District thanks in large part to a savvy reporter, passionately vigilant student publication editors, thoughtful publication advisers and a student-centered superintendent.

What happened? In short, a terribly flawed student publications policy almost made it into the official remix of hundreds of policy changes and updates that the school board is proposing in Seattle. This same policy – known as 3220 and 3220SP – has signaled the end to a responsible and free student press in dozens of districts across the state, most notably in Everett and Puyallup. The stakes were high.

But this is a good story, one with a positive outcome for student journalists. A story that deserves kudos on many levels. So, applause goes to Phyllis Fletcher of KUOW who broke this story. Fletcher is a graduate of Seattle’s Garfield High School where she worked on the Messenger newsmagazine staff. Praise for the incredibly thoughtful young editors and reporters on the Seattle high school publication staffs who worked so hard to get the word out about this terribly flawed policy. Tip of the hat to the advisers in Seattle who provided appropriate support to their student journalists.

Applause, too, to Supt. Susan Enfield who really gets it on this issue and was courageous enough to step away from Policy 3220 – a policy, by the way, that the SSD did not write, but is one of hundreds contained within a template of policies from the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA). Frankly, 3220 needs to be seriously edited or deleted.

WSSDA does a disservice to its members and to thousands of students by keeping this policy in its mix of templates.

So, what’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t public school principals and administrators have total control over the student press? Isn’t it about time these student journalists learn that it’s the publisher who ultimately controls content? Really, who do these students think they are demanding privileges not even a Seattle Times reporter would have. At least those are some of the typical comments I hear time and again whenever student press rights are challenged.

To be clear, there really is no commercial or corporate publication that is analogous to a student publication at a public high school. I think this is why some folks raise these types of questions. First of all, student journalists must abide by the same laws and ethical guidelines as any other journalist with regard to libel, invasion of privacy, accuracy, liability, etc. Student journalists who I have advised have been served search warrants, subpoenas, etc. They had no special privilege. The newsroom that my students work in is really not much different than what you’d find at a small commercial publication, except that the editors, reporters, photographers, ad sales folks, etc. happen to be high school students.

But that’s where the similarities start to break sharply from those who work for corporate or commercial media. A true student publication, like the one I advise, exists because it is the collective intellectual work product of a group of public high school students. Its mission is to be the publication of record for its audience as well as to serve as a learning laboratory for the student editors, reporters, photographers, etc.

Importantly, unlike a commercial newspaper, a student publication does not exist to serve the interests of a publisher or shareholders. In fact, I would argue that the collective group of students is the publisher of a true student newspaper – not the

school, not the school board, not the principal, not the superintendent. Why? Because the work these students create (at least those working on an open forum publication) is the intellectual property of those students journalists; they own it.

The students I advise, for example, are in charge of the entire content, layout and design of their publication. The only thing they do not do is put the ink on the paper. Additionally, the publication is nearly 100 percent financially self-sustaining.

Some would argue that the school and district provides my salary, the building, the space, the heat, the lights, the equipment, etc. and, therefore, the school owns the paper.

I disagree.

In my English class, if I assign my students to write a collection of poems, even if it’s for a grade, the school has no copyright claim to those students’ work. The school district has no legal basis for claiming ownership of this type of student work, so why would it be any different with a co-curricular or extra-curricular student publication?

Or how about this analogy (credit for this goes to my daughter, herself a former editor of the publication I advise): Let’s say you decide to write a book, but you don’t have a computer, you don’t have access to the Internet, you don’t even have paper or a pencil to write with. So, you go to your local public library where you are provided access to a computer and the Internet, assistance from the librarian, and lots of paper and even a pencil or two. It’s nice and cozy and warm there, too, and well lit and free from distractions. It takes you a couple of months and numerous visits, but you eventually finish the book and submit it for publication.

Who owns it? The library? No.

The citizens who pay taxes to provide library services? No.

You do. It’s your intellectual property.

Similarly, the taxpayers in a public school district provide student journalists with basic resources, but neither they nor the school administrators who work on their behalf can claim ownership of the student publication.

Another important point to consider is that student journalists are in the unique position of having to rely on sources and report on people who are essentially their superiors – principals, teachers, coaches, district officials, etc. Additionally, in a public school setting, those same people are also government employees.

Is it proper for journalists to turn over editorial control to their sources? Is it okay to turn over control to government officials?

I don’t think so.

That’s why savvy school districts and administrators hire well-trained publication advisers. In my role, I am both an educator and an adviser – not an editor, publisher, censor, etc. I advise the student editors throughout the entire publication process and they have on occasion thoughtfully disagreed with my advice.

Additionally, when a school or district sets up open forum status for its publications, it is no longer responsible or liable for the content of those publications. In fact, the Puyallup and Seattle school districts have recently won major legal victories because of the open forum status of their publications.

In fact, did you know that no public school district in the United States has ever been successfully sued because of its student newspaper? Pretty amazing track record, don’t you think? However, lots of public school districts have been successfully sued because they infringed on students’ First Amendment rights.

So, is there any potential legal risk involved in having an open public forum student newspaper associated with a public high school? Sure, but that risk pales in comparison to other liabilities that school districts deal with on a far more frequent basis (athletics, transportation, discipline, facilities, etc.). Still, if you believed even a fraction of the scary statements I frequently hear from district administrators, school district legal advisers and less-than-informed community members, you’d swear student journalists were completely running amok.

On the contrary, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of your local high school publication or visit their website and look at what student journalists are doing today right here and across the country. It’s pretty amazing, really. And while it isn’t always great journalism, the vast majority of their work is passionate and clear evidence that journalism is far from dead.

– 30 –

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The fight to save Seattle’s scholastic journalism: A good story with a positive outcome

Posted by on Nov 16, 2011 in Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

By Vince DeMiero
Nov. 15, 2011

Student press rights are alive and well in the Seattle School District thanks in large part to a savvy reporter, passionately vigilant student publication editors, thoughtful publication advisers and a student-centered superintendent.

What happened? In short, a terribly flawed student publications policy almost made it into the official remix of hundreds of policy changes and updates that the school board is proposing in Seattle. This same policy – known as 3220 and 3220SP – has signaled the end to a responsible and free student press in dozens of districts across the state, most notably in Everett and Puyallup. The stakes were high.

But this is a good story, one with a positive outcome for student journalists. A story that deserves kudos on many levels. So, applause goes to Phyllis Fletcher of KUOW who broke this story. Fletcher is a graduate of Seattle’s Garfield High School where she worked on the Messenger newsmagazine staff. Praise for the incredibly thoughtful young editors and reporters on the Seattle high school publication staffs who worked so hard to get the word out about this terribly flawed policy. Tip of the hat to the advisers in Seattle who provided appropriate support to their student journalists.

Applause, too, to Supt. Susan Enfield who really gets it on this issue and was courageous enough to step away from Policy 3220 – a policy, by the way, that the SSD did not write, but is one of hundreds contained within a template of policies from the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA). Frankly, 3220 needs to be seriously edited or deleted.

WSSDA does a disservice to its members and to thousands of students by keeping this policy in its mix of templates.

So, what’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t public school principals and administrators have total control over the student press? Isn’t it about time these student journalists learn that it’s the publisher who ultimately controls content? Really, who do these students think they are demanding privileges not even a Seattle Times reporter would have. At least those are some of the typical comments I hear time and again whenever student press rights are challenged.

To be clear, there really is no commercial or corporate publication that is analogous to a student publication at a public high school. I think this is why some folks raise these types of questions. First of all, student journalists must abide by the same laws and ethical guidelines as any other journalist with regard to libel, invasion of privacy, accuracy, liability, etc. Student journalists who I have advised have been served search warrants, subpoenas, etc. They had no special privilege. The newsroom that my students work in is really not much different than what you’d find at a small commercial publication, except that the editors, reporters, photographers, ad sales folks, etc. happen to be high school students.

But that’s where the similarities start to break sharply from those who work for corporate or commercial media. A true student publication, like the one I advise, exists because it is the collective intellectual work product of a group of public high school students. Its mission is to be the publication of record for its audience as well as to serve as a learning laboratory for the student editors, reporters, photographers, etc.

Importantly, unlike a commercial newspaper, a student publication does not exist to serve the interests of a publisher or shareholders. In fact, I would argue that the collective group of students is the publisher of a true student newspaper – not the

school, not the school board, not the principal, not the superintendent. Why? Because the work these students create (at least those working on an open forum publication) is the intellectual property of those students journalists; they own it.

The students I advise, for example, are in charge of the entire content, layout and design of their publication. The only thing they do not do is put the ink on the paper. Additionally, the publication is nearly 100 percent financially self-sustaining.

Some would argue that the school and district provides my salary, the building, the space, the heat, the lights, the equipment, etc. and, therefore, the school owns the paper.

I disagree.

In my English class, if I assign my students to write a collection of poems, even if it’s for a grade, the school has no copyright claim to those students’ work. The school district has no legal basis for claiming ownership of this type of student work, so why would it be any different with a co-curricular or extra-curricular student publication?

Or how about this analogy (credit for this goes to my daughter, herself a former editor of the publication I advise): Let’s say you decide to write a book, but you don’t have a computer, you don’t have access to the Internet, you don’t even have paper or a pencil to write with. So, you go to your local public library where you are provided access to a computer and the Internet, assistance from the librarian, and lots of paper and even a pencil or two. It’s nice and cozy and warm there, too, and well lit and free from distractions. It takes you a couple of months and numerous visits, but you eventually finish the book and submit it for publication.

Who owns it? The library? No.

The citizens who pay taxes to provide library services? No.

You do. It’s your intellectual property.

Similarly, the taxpayers in a public school district provide student journalists with basic resources, but neither they nor the school administrators who work on their behalf can claim ownership of the student publication.

Another important point to consider is that student journalists are in the unique position of having to rely on sources and report on people who are essentially their superiors – principals, teachers, coaches, district officials, etc. Additionally, in a public school setting, those same people are also government employees.

Is it proper for journalists to turn over editorial control to their sources? Is it okay to turn over control to government officials?

I don’t think so.

That’s why savvy school districts and administrators hire well-trained publication advisers. In my role, I am both an educator and an adviser – not an editor, publisher, censor, etc. I advise the student editors throughout the entire publication process and they have on occasion thoughtfully disagreed with my advice.

Additionally, when a school or district sets up open forum status for its publications, it is no longer responsible or liable for the content of those publications. In fact, the Puyallup and Seattle school districts have recently won major legal victories because of the open forum status of their publications.

In fact, did you know that no public school district in the United States has ever been successfully sued because of its student newspaper? Pretty amazing track record, don’t you think? However, lots of public school districts have been successfully sued because they infringed on students’ First Amendment rights.

So, is there any potential legal risk involved in having an open public forum student newspaper associated with a public high school? Sure, but that risk pales in comparison to other liabilities that school districts deal with on a far more frequent basis (athletics, transportation, discipline, facilities, etc.). Still, if you believed even a fraction of the scary statements I frequently hear from district administrators, school district legal advisers and less-than-informed community members, you’d swear student journalists were completely running amok.

On the contrary, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of your local high school publication or visit their website and look at what student journalists are doing today right here and across the country. It’s pretty amazing, really. And while it isn’t always great journalism, the vast majority of their work is passionate and clear evidence that journalism is far from dead.

– 30 –

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Seattle School District seeks to remove forum policy for prior review

Posted by on Nov 4, 2011 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments

Even though its current open forum policy helped it avoid a lawsuit earlier this year, the Seattle School District seems determined to change course and install prior review, making the adviser responsible for all content and the administrators able to review at will.

A decision earlier this year in the Sisley v Seattle School District case hinged on the school’s stand on recognizing student media as forums for student expression and without prior review. The court, in its ruling, stated, ” As a matter of law, plaintiffs are unable to prove that, consistent with the First Amendment, the [district] should have censored the student’s speech.”

Now, according to a report from NPR station KUOW in Seattle, “The Seattle School Board is considering a rule change that would affect student newspapers. For the first time, the district would let principals review a student paper before it’s published. The district proposes the change, even after it won a lawsuit this summer because its students have freedom of the press.”

According to KUOW, the Seattle district used a freedom of the press argument to win in the Sisley decision in addition to the truth argument of the student article. KUOW reports new standards, part of a system-wide overhaul, would call for prior review and give principals broad powers of control, including determining what is “inappropriate” and what is “disruptive.” The board will decide on the policy change December 7.

Washington Journalism Education Association’s Fern Valentine, who had seen the proposed policy, said in an email it clearly puts the adviser in charge of content supervision and gives administrators prior review. The policy also uses other language like not publishing material “inappropriate for the maturity level of the students” and criticism of school officials that could lead to substantial disruption of the school.

KUOW quoted SPLC consultant Mike Hiestand that such a change would make the district liable for content.

“The minute that you open the door and say that a principal has that authority,” Hiestand told the station, “as a plaintiff’s attorney, you know, I start to salivate.”

Kathy Schrier, Executive Director for the Washington Journalism Education Association, said the potential move sets the stage for censorship of student expression

“WJEA is dismayed to see that this deeply flawed cookie cutter policy is endorsed by the Washington State School Directors Association,” Schrier said, “and worse, that it is being considered for adoption in the Seattle School District. This proposed policy removes responsibility for content from student editors and sets the stage for administrative censorship.”

Schrier also noted  Seattle has long had an excellent, clearly worded policy that set a high standard for student accountability with the expectation students would follow the law.

“The new policy, if adopted,” she said, “will create a chilling effect on scholastic journalism in Seattle schools, as has happened in other districts where this policy has been established. WJEA will fight the adoption of Policy 3220 by the Seattle School Board.”

WJEA president Vince DeMiero said the student publication policies under consideration by the Seattle School District are inconsistent with federal and state law, state code and best educational practices.

“They are in stark contrast to the wonderful policy that has served the district, educators and students so well for at least the past 20 years,” DeMiero said. “Policy 3220 continues to be pushed by the Washington State School Directors’ Association even though it is inconsistent with federal and state law, state code and best educational practice.

DeMiero said the policy is inconsistent with WSSDA’s own stated mission to “support public school directors’ efforts to improve student learning.”

“Policy 3220,” he said, “does nothing to improve teaching or learning in Seattle or anywhere else.”

John Hamer, President and Executive Director of Washington News Council, spoke to the value of students making decisions to learn critical thinking.

“Student journalists should have the freedom to express themselves and cover their school communities just as professional and citizen journalists do,” Hamer said of his personal views. “The more responsibility they are given, the more careful and ethical they will be. Many student journalists nationwide have already taken our (Washington News Council) ‘TAO of Journalism’ pledge to be Transparent, Accountable and Open. That’s a far better approach than prior review and administrative censorship.”

JEA has long opposed and condemned prior review as an tool without legitimate educational value, as well as a legally questionable practice. We continue to do so in this and other incidents.

Watch for more information on this situation.

For more information on the situation, go to KUOW radio

For background on events earlier this year and lessons about the decision, including the importance of the Sisley decision, go here.

For additional information on censorship research and fighting prior review, go here and here.

For JEA’s position on prior review and more on questioning it, go here.

 

 

 

 

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