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.
Television station KOMO recently reported the May 24 Puyallup, Washington, school board meeting where student journalists are trying to reverse the board’s prior review policies.
Like the other links posted here in the last couple of days, this one can add to the First Amendment discussion, not only about the issues reported but about the comments and the perspectives that drive them. The comments deserve special attention.
If we are to really develop a community of support for First Amendment issues in education we have to create a climate more accepting of the importance of free and responsible expression. That climate does not stop at the end of the school year and magically begin again in the fall.
On another point, the reporter here missed a good chance for a question the village ought to think about: if Don Austin, the school’s attorney, really thinks legislation might be a solution to a theoretical liability issue, why has he spoken publicly against past efforts at state legislation protecting student expression – and hence schools?
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
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