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The worst legal problem in scholastic media

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“What’s the legal problem you fear the most?” That’s always the first writing assignment for JMC47003, the Teaching High School Journalism class at Kent State. Students are Integrated Language Arts majors….and most would rather die than teach journalism. The class is a requirement, but they see only Shakespeare and poetry in their futures.

So what DOES worry them?

Generally, their topics fall into one of three categories: libel or copyright violation or censorship. If the criteria for worrying is based on statistics, they don’t need to worry about about defamation, but the other two are worth their concern.

Libel cases don’t happen that often, according to the Student Press Law Center. In fact, those that even make it to court are virtually nonexistent when it comes to high school media. Besides, so many red flags could alert students — and advisers — to defamation. Are you saying something BAD about someone? Is it true? Does it say the person did something illegal? Why do readers need to know? That’s an ethical question, but it’s a good one nonetheless.

Copyright violation is pretty easy to combat, too, especially after checking the SPLC Web site. You didn’t take the photo? Do you have written permission to use it? No? Better not. Yes, some items come under the heading of fair use, but that’s not too common, and why not push your own photographers to localize in the first place?

However, censorship and its cousin prior review aren’t so easy to combat. Sure, if you live in one of the “anti-Hazelwood” states, you have legislation on your side. And if you have a board-approved policy setting your media up as a forum of student expression, you have some safety there.

But lately even those protections haven’t been so strong. California schools, with the most long-standing AND most recent free expression legislation, have had some issues. Pennsylvania, with its administrative code, has schools under the gun with administrators naming themselves editors. Districts with strong policies have decided to rethink what’s on the books.

So what’s a current or future adviser to do? Is there reason to worry? Current statistics don’t even give us a good glimpse of how pervasive prior review and censorship are. It’s only when a situation hits the media — the principal pulls an article that might make the school look bad or keeps a stack of papers from being distributed — that we find out what’s going on. Then we know, though we don’t know how much student media is routinely reviewed and how many principals “suggest” some topics never reach their audiences.

The second part of the paper my future teachers write focuses on what they would do about this legal issue, either how they would prevent it or react if it happens. Perhaps the best suggestion to them and to others: Keep current on legal issues. Know what protections your state affords. Train your students to understand their rights and responsibilities and to fight for them if someone tries to take them away. Develop allies on the school board, with parents, in the community.

It’s also valuable to develop a good relationship with administrators, which doesn’t mean letting them call all the shots. Be sure they know the student journalists’ mission and how they work on a regular basis. Let them sit in on a good, rousing editorial board meeting where it’s clear the staff discusses and wrangles over topics and angles and doesn’t just publish without thinking. Trust makes a big difference here.

That’s what most of the students in Teaching High School Journalism decide. Legal battles in traditional English classes are rare. The administration doesn’t call those teachers into the office too often. But does their course content have an impact on the whole school or community? How often do they really make a difference?

Bottom line: Wanting to teach Shakespeare or poetry has its merits. However, teaching journalism and advising student media may have potential legal battles but will definitely have an impact.

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