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Student free speech vs. adviser job security?


“But what do you do if what they want to publish may cause a problem?” Rachel asked, a little furrow of a frown between her eyes.

She and the other 16 education majors in Kent State’s Teaching High School Journalism course had heard all about the value of a free press from Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism Mark Goodman. He had met with them the week before when I had to miss class. Now I was back, explaining the value of the Tinker standard and re-emphasizing their future students’ First Amendment rights.

Rachel and most of the others felt our passion and wanted to believe, but…they envisioned a lot of “what ifs” for new teachers.

This, of course, is not a new dilemma. It’s as old as teachers who value their students’ voices but know they need jobs. Especially before they are tenured, letting students have their say can be downright scary.

So what was my answer to Rachel and the others? I was ready for that question and had my 8-point guide to discuss whenever this concern came up — as it always does in this course. These are suggestions for my future advisers and a possible refresher for those advising now.

  1. Teach students law and ethics from the very beginning of their journalism careers. If this is an after-school club, it’s just as important to fit in the basics.  JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission has plenty of options, from full-blown lesson plans like those from last fall’s Constitution Day to the new 60-second Press Rights Minute podcasts.
  2. Besides the basics, make sure your students can spot red flags. The Student Press Law Center’s downloadable PowerPoint about libel law (scroll down – they’re alphabetical) talks about red flag words in connection with defamation. Accusations of illegal actions or sexual misconduct should make a staff think twice.
  3. Develop your own list of community red flags – criticism of administrative decisions, allegations of drug use, reports of students cheating on exams, an athletic team’s losing streak.  This does NOT mean you should self-censor and avoid these topics, but it does mean you need to be prepared to deal with the probably fallout from reporting on them and develop a sound rationale.  Your staff knows why the material should run – but help them see how to articulate that
  4. When it comes to ethics, think about Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and his Red Light/Green Light approach.  In short, Clark suggests thinking “how to” cover a challenging issue, not “should you” cover it. That editor’s rant in a personal column may not be the best way to present a reasoned solution to the open campus dilemma. Would research into what nearby schools do and a staff edit pointing out other options work better?
  5. Be sure you have an editorial policy. This lets your audience know what you’re all about. It helps guide an editorial board in making decisions and shows others why the student staff made the decisions it did.
  6. Set up an editorial board . (Francis Howell North’s Editorial Policy clearly describes what its Board does.) This group can do many things, but it definitely needs to discuss red flags and green lights of all kinds. Make sure this group talks through WHY something should go in the paper and assesses both its potential to help and possibility to harm.
  7. Play devil’s advocate. Generally even new and fairly inexperienced teachers/advisers have a better grasp of the impact an article or photo will have than the student staff does. Don’t be afraid to show the worst case scenario. What will others say and do? Does that help you accomplish the purpose outlined in #6? If the school, administration and community will only see the sexually explicit photo on the well-researched article about teen STDs, is that really the best way to illustrate the topic?
  8. Bottom line: This is THEIR dilemma and fight. Students have to know if they don’t take your advice as a trained (or at least somewhat trained) journalism professional, you won’t be supporting their decision. But a staff that has its grounding in law and ethics and knows decisions and the responsibility of those decisions are theirs, are less likely to publish or air material that will cause a problem.

That didn’t entirely put to rest Rachel’s and her classmates’ concerns, but I could tell them honestly, in 23 years of advising student media, I never had a staff say, “I don’t care what you think. We’re going to do it our way anyway.”

Thank goodness.


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