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Why we keep harping about prior review

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by Kathy Schrier
At the conclusion of our summer student journalism workshop here in Washington state, we asked for student feedback and one student wrote: “We spent too much time hearing about prior review…”

I have to concede that this year’s summer workshop was, in fact, heavy on talk of the dangers posed by administrative prior review. It was inevitable. Workshop presenters included four members of the SPRC (Carrie Faust, Vince DeMiero, Fern Valentine and me); and special guest presenters included Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), and Brian Schraum, former SPLC Publications Fellow.

The student’s question was valid, causing me to pause and wonder if, in our deep concern for this issue, we don’t sometimes cross the line into overkill territory. If a student attends one of our workshops to learn more about how to use fonts effectively, should we force that student to worry about prior review?

Sixth in a series

The post on prior review is the sixth in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, private school journalism, prior review and Making a Difference. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know.

My answer is yes.

Every student involved in journalism, even those just into design, must know what prior review is, and if it impacts them. If they are fortunate enough to be in a school district where students control content in student media, they must know that their situation can change overnight. Take, for example, the Puyallup School District here in Washington state.

All it took was one controversial article, a lawsuit, and a knee-jerk reaction by the superintendent of schools, to pass a policy shutting down the long held Open Forum status of student media at all three high schools in the Puyallup District. This is even after the court vindicated the student journalists involved, and awarded no damages to the plaintiffs (MRB v. Puyallup School District.) The decision was upheld on appeal, yet the imposition of prior review continues three years later.

And it isn’t just prior review anymore in the Puyallup School District.

Inevitably, prior review leads to censorship, and that has now happened. A recent obituary on a student suicide was pulled by administrators, despite the approval of the family of the deceased and the standard format used for all obituaries. Student journalists have simply become less willing to take risks.

“Since the policy was enacted, students have been very aware of the oversight and have avoided tackling sensitive issues,” said recently retired adviser Kay Locey, CJE.

The irony, of course, is that by negating the Open Forum status of student media, the Puyallup School District sets itself up to be held responsible for all content, and more likely to be on the losing end of a future lawsuit.

Another case here in Washington shows how a school district can find protection from liability when media content is traditionally controlled by student editors (Sisley v. Seattle Public School District No. 1.) Instead of cracking down on the student press following this defamation lawsuit, the Seattle District continues to allow student media to operate on an Open Forum basis.

Know your resources:  The SPRC provides a Panic Button if prior review is imposed on your program. This Blog includes posts about how to avoid prior review and on how to deal with administrators. The Student Press Law Center is ready to answer your legal questions.

Yes, prior review is a hot topic at the SPRC, because it undermines your constitutional right to a free press.

And yes, we will continue to harp.

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