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Editorial policy sets forum status,
decision-making standard and more


Editorial policy

What is it/definition: Designed to provide legal framework for student media, editorial policies come in two forms, school-board level and media-level. In case of conflicts, a school-board policy usually will take precedence. Absent a policy, practice can help determine freedom of expression status. Typical content of an editorial policy can include:

  • Level of freedom of expression
  • Responsibility for student media content
  • Forum status
  • Prior review and restraint
  • References to guiding legal decisions and theories
  • Language about journalistic responsibility, civic engagement and future of democracy 

Important items of note: In addition to typical content language, we recommend several additional considerations:

  • We believe student media policies should be the same for each of the school’s student media, including legal language, ethics, mission and staff manual procedure.
  • However, for less misinformation and confusion, clearly separate the content of each section. For example, don’t combine legal statements and ethical ones. Legal statements are “musts” and ethics are “should.” Not following an ethical guideline is not directed by policy and not punishable by the school.
  • Policies are like constitutions and not changeable as often; ethics and staff manual procedures can change more often, as needed.
  • Students should be involved policy development and decision.


Guideline: Editorial policy creation might easily be the most important decision students, advisers and school officials (for a board level policy) can make. Do so with care and investigation of a range of ideas, theories and working.


Procedure: We believe a policy should be fashioned to meet your local needs. What we provide are models and discussions leaving the decision-making to students and advisers.


Our work ties four elements together – mission, principle, process and procedure – but as statements that separately outline the ideas behind what student media do.

  • This means “principle” is a student mediapolicy.One approved at the board level is best and should be simple and straightforward, acknowledging the media are designated forums of student expression, where students make final content decisions. (See examples following)

Lacking that approval, a similar editorial policy at the publication levelis useful, too, because, according to court decisions, operating as a designated public forum in practice is also a good way to protect student free speech rights.

  • The “process” is the ethical guidelines. Unlike laws, ethical situations are right vs. right dilemmas and not right vs. wrong. Ethical guidelines are recommendations and thus cannot be broken as laws can. These guidelines help students decide how they operate on a daily basis, and their application is left in the hands of the students.Hence, our
  • The “procedure” is the staff manual, the specific actions and processes the staff uses regularly – how letters are handled, what happens when a source wants to be anonymous – all the things that ensure a staff operates in a professional and credible manner. These also are exclusively enforced by the student staff itself.

For example, five editorial policy models are part of this project, four for board-level policies  and one for a publication-level  editorial policy.


Quick Tip: For the most legal protection and strongest evidence of learning, we recommend these policies be short and make at least three points: media should be designated public forums for student expression, students make final decisions of content and without prior review.


Quick Tips index   A list of nearly 70 journalism processes showing the interaction between every day journalistic processes and actions and ethical principles.



Board media policiesYou want these policies to be short and make three points: media should be designated public forums for student expression, students make final decisions of content and without prior review.


The Tinker standard:The landmark Supreme Court decision from 1969 was a victory for First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and expression at school.


The Hazelwood decision:Learn the background behind the 1988 Supreme Court decision about the Spectrum newspaper and its impact on student expression.


SPRC blogs

The foundations of journalism: policies, ethics and staff manuals   This is the core, 4-part set of principles, legal statements, guidelines and procedures used to set the tone, the standards and
path to success of your student media, Mouse across the black area below “spectrum expression.” Double click on the numbers for information, rationale and models. You will link to the
sitemapof numerous files.


For policy, click on these links: Introductory article, Public forum overview,Prior review and restraint Quick access to policy models, Creating a mission statement, School board and media policyandPublication level policy.


Student media policy may be the most important decision you make   Students should understand while they can and should adopt best legal practices and ethical guidelines for their media, the school district’s or school board’s media policy (if one exists) could impact their legal and ethical decisions.


What should go into an editorial policy? What should not?   Editorial policies are the foundations for your journalism program. Often short, these statements address forum status, who makes final decisions of contentandprior review. Think of it this way: a strong policy is prescriptive. It says what students will do. A policy is like a constitution and sets the legal framework for student media.


Handout: Foundations of journalism; policy, procedure, guideline   This model can help with the how and what of policy and ethics developments. It can also can allow students to say why they believe in and follow.


Getting your editorial policy the right way   Teachers can be the world’s worst thieves without ever meaning to be. We’ve all done it — sometimes out of panicked need, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because we think our classroom is some sort of copyright-free zone. So just what canteachers use that others have created? Just what is fair use in the classroom? What may be legal but not exactly ethical for us to use? This is the first of a two-part series concerning our use of others’ creative work.


Working with a board-approved policy   Staffs should include the district policy in their staff manuals if available. If not, they should work towards reaching agreement with the administration and school board for a policy all can agree makes the most educational sense. Three examples of these board policies are available, each with that same basic premise but with increasingly more detail and explanation of philosophy. Each, however, begins with the statement that all student media are designated public forums where students make all content decisions.


Help with crafting policies and ethical guidelines for student media   This project is a two-fold effort to combine policy, ethics and staff manual procedure into an integrated process where policy sets the stage for ethical guidelines and ethical guidelines shape staff manual procedure. Our interest in developing the project began when we found several instances when a school administrator in a potential censorship situation wanted to enforce — even punish — students for not following ethics statements because policy, ethics and staff manual points were all intermixed in a common document that the school administrator presumed he had the authority to enforce based on his interpretation. Hence, our work ties the three elements together – principle, process and procedure – but as statements that separately outline the ideas behind what staffs do.


Media-level editorial policies  Media-level editorial policies aren’t as much legal protection as the board-level policies, but they could show how students operate “in practice” and thus might be viewed as some protection. Thus they are a must for student media.


Fond du Lac gets new policy, content in hands of students, adviser   Students at Wisconsin’s Fond du Lac High have a new editorial policy this fall after a spring and summer of working to reach compromise that would end prior review and restraint.


Strong editorial policies speed you to the Hazelwood Cure   Once you have established yourselves as public forums for student expression, the next step is to design clear and concise policies that protect student final decision-making for your media, and that help protect the school system and community from harm. The best policy can protect you from many illnesses, including Hazelwood, and will go a long way to speed you to the Hazelwood Cure. A bad policy can be worse than the plague.


A process for developing editorial policies that mean something   Editorial policies are among the most important documents advisers and their students will create. Done correctly, they will protect you and your students, your administrators and your school system against unwanted legal issues.


Free press – why students should make decisions of content   For students to prepare for roles in a democracy, they must be able to practice guarantees of the First Amendment, thus knowing they can make a difference. Free expression in student media helps students learn to make critical decisions for which they are responsible, to develop integrity in their journalistic practice as well as their thinking and to engage with people on issues of importance and interest


Prior review v. prior restraint   In brief, the Journalism Education Association has found prior review has no educational value. Instead, JEA believes it is simply the first step toward censorship and fake news. Prior review also contributes to self-censorship and lack of trust between students, advisers and administrators. Prior review conflicts with JEA’s adviser code of ethics. Also, this site.


Rethinking your forum status – why correct wording is essential   With the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear appeals on the 2nd Circuit’s Ithacadecision, student media advisers and their journalists should be aware of a potential conflict over how they use the word “forum.” In short, if an editorial policy is going to say student media are forums, students and advisers must be able to explain what that means and why it is educationally important.


Circuit Court decisions support student freedoms  Hazelwood is not the only court decision with views on student expression.


Letters and commentary can enhance public forumrole  Publishing letters to the editor is another way of fulfilling student media’s forum obligations to engage audiences through journalistic responsibility.

That said, students should establish clear criteria for identifying the authors, receiving and verifying the information. /Such viewpoint neutral guidelines do not violate the author’s free expression rights.


The perks of being a wallflower: How a school district escaped a lawsuit by fostering an independent student press   The court decisions highlight the idea forum status and policy do matter.


When your publication is a public forum and when it is not   School officials’ ability to legally censor school-sponsored student expression at public junior high and high schools is determined by whether they can meet the burden the First Amendment places on them to justify their actions. Often the most important question in that analysis is whichof two First Amendment standards they have to meet

Re-establishing our belief in the right forum   Just because the 2nd Circuit Federal Appeals Court recently handed down a decision inR.O. v. Ithaca City School Districtladen with shaky interpretations and references, it is not time to surrender or alter our beliefs.


Stopping prior review one fight at a time   Marie Miller, publications adviser in Fauquier County, Virginia, posted this to the JEA listserv today. With censorship and prior review constantly in the news, we thought her points should be repeated to show prior review can be prevented short of court battles. Information about Miller’s situation can be found on the SPLC siteand earlier reporting here.



SPLC resources:


Other resources:


JEA law/ethics curriculum:

SPLC Media Law Presentation: Press Freedom

Students will be exposed briefly to many of the topics we will be discussing in this unit including: role of the free press, censorship, First Amendment, difference in public and private school law, several law cases and unprotected speech.


Understanding Journalistic Forum Status

The 1988 Hazelwood v KuhlmeierU. S. Supreme Court decision created a need for students and advisers to understand what forum status means for all scholastic media. This lesson defines the three types of forums and outlines what each could mean for students. The lesson also enables student journalists to choose which forum best meets their needs and take steps to create that forum. This lesson works best when used before the Creating an Editorial Policy lesson and after the Mission Planning lessons.


Crafting the Argument Against Prior Review and Censorship

Building the case against prior review and restraint: talking points to help start a discussion between advisers and administrators


Related Content: Foundation/ Staff Guidelines | Mission|  Ethics | Staff Manual | Prior Review | Restraint | Censorship




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