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Be proactive in educating your school administrators about student press rights

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by Mitch Ziegler, MJE

On a newspaper deadline night I was reading a story about a student’s trip to Jordan and the West Bank, which focused on her strong criticisms about how her family was treated by the Israelis who ran the border crossing. It was an opinion piece, which argued solely through description.

Like all strong opinions, there were definitely counter-arguments in my mind, which we discussed. After suggesting a few minor edits, we printed the story essentially unchanged.

Because we are in California, a state with strong First Amendment protections for student journalists, it’s how I operate: according to the law and my belief in student free speech.

As I sent the PDF to the printer, my inner voice said, “you are going to be hit hard on this one.” 

And I was, by the Jewish community in Redondo Beach, of which I am a member. There were meetings, and angry letters to the school board, district administration, school administration, and me. 

The one side I had no worries about, however, was my school and district.

The key is to foster relationships and instruct administration in the law. When controversy occurs, this can prevent or slow administrator’s responses, which sometimes is all you need. 

Early in my career I learned it was important to be in contact with administrators about publications, and to provide training in student press rights. About a year before the above incident, I met with the admin team to talk about student press rights and why the laws were a help to them. During that meeting a new assistant principal actually took notes!

I pointed out how the law protects them from liability, unless they decide to interfere with student speech. It was pretty easy to discuss the California Education Code with them, which is pretty clear and which provides the strongest student press rights in the country.

Libel and obscenity were a quick discussion, while the discussion about disruption, which some misguided administrators love to cite, took a bit longer. 

I then went backward a bit, to show how press rights are a form of property rights. Stories in the newspaper and yearbook were one type, but I also decided to cite an example outside of content in publications, with a more general appeal: issues with senior panorama photos.

There had been an incident at another school where the principal had students removed from a group shot for expressing religious messages.

The principal worried the school could get into trouble by violating the separation of church and state. The Tinker decision, however, guarantees students possess rights to free speech. When the principal pulled the student out of the photograph, he was depriving the students their rights to free speech and showing viewpoint preference. 

The answer, it turns out, is in allowing press rights. The yearbook staff owns the group photo, and the staff editors own the right to determine content in the yearbook.

As the adviser, I discuss with the students what they want to allow in the photograph. Once they agree the only messages allowed are class-spirited ones, students can be pulled out of the photograph by the adviser or principal, or anyone else, as long as they are acting on behalf of the yearbook editors, who “own” the content of the photograph.

The moment the principal acted alone, the speech rights, which were originally owned by the student editors, shifted to a conflict between the students with the religious message and the principal, with the property right shifting to the students. 

The moment the principal acted alone, the speech rights, which were originally owned by the student editors, shifted to a conflict between the students with the religious message and the principal, with the property right shifting to the students.

Mitch Ziegler …

By the time of the controversy about my student’s article, administrators at my school were armed with proper knowledge of student press rights. They were able to educate district administrators and board members early in the process, which limited or prevented reactive responses, and they were able to respond to angry community members in a way the tended to defuse the situation. 

And it was not just the law that protected me. I was able to build credibility and relationships with site administrators, which I believe was as important as the law itself. At no point did I feel threatened or undermined. 

It’s all about communication and being proactive with administrators. This is not a guaranteed recipe for success, even in California. These strategies have the potential to help in many situations, but they will never be as useful without New Voices legislation. 

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