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Rethinking your forum status – why the correct wording is essential

Posted by on Oct 20, 2011 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


With the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear appeals on the 2nd Circuit’s Ithaca decision, 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.

Instead of using wording like this student publication is a limited forum or limited public forum, the Press Rights Commission strongly recommends use of this wording: This student publication is a designated public forum.

In addition, the commission also strongly recommends editorial policies also include this statement: Student editors will make all decisions of content. That statement can show the purpose of the forum and how it is carried out. Additional explanation can share why students should make all final decisions of content.

The need for these changes comes because just stating, as many student media do, that they are forums in name is no longer enough because of the Ithaca decision.

SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte said, in that organization’s May 18 News Flash, Ithaca was a misapplication of the law.

“The court just fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be a limited public forum,” LoMonte said. “A forum where the government gets to pick and choose which cartoons it likes is meaningless.”

Mark Goodman, Knight Chair of Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, said the court’s decision shows students and advisers can no longer rely on calling themselves a limited forum or just a forum for student expression.

He said the Ithaca court added a new definition of “limited” from what other courts had used, stating “limited” means (in the Ithaca decision) that student media content can be limited to certain subjects. Previous courts had consistently ruled “limited” meant schools could direct content to selected  audiences.

“All that this ruling really changes,” LoMonte said in the News Flash, “is that the term ‘limited public forum’ by itself apparently is going to be meaningless. And, as in Hazelwood itself, the court looked to the actual practice as well as what was on paper.”

LoMonte later said in a post to JEA’s listserv that Ithaca is such an outlandish overreach “it may become in New York, Vermont and Connecticut what Hosty v. Carter became for the college media in Illinois — the impetus for legislators to fix the law.”

“The Ithaca decision cannot be considered a legal precedent and has no real application beyond the 2nd Circuit (New York, Connecticut and Vermont),” Goodman said.

While changing your policy’s wording does not guarantee protection against censorship (what does?), it provides a clearer, more definitive what kind of forum guides your student media.


“Drawings of stick figures in sexual positions clearly qualify as ‘lewd,’ that is, ‘inciting to sensual desire or imagination,’” Second Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes wrote in the decision about why the school could censor an independent student publication and the school’s student paper, which had attempted unsuccessfully to run the drawing in the first place.

The decision also said even though the school’s paper, the Tattler, was a “limited public forum,” the cartoon could still be censored.

Speaking of word precision, let’s all start referring to publications run by and for students as “student media, not school media. Another suggestion would be yearbook “printing company” rather than yearbook publisher. The more precise we are in our references, the less confusion we may mistakenly create.

Resources: Model editorial policies


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Noteworthy information 10: Questions for the new era

Posted by on Aug 21, 2010 in Blog, Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


To help us prepare for scholastic journalism’s new era, let’s look at the 10 roles exercise recently outlined by the Center for Scholastic Journalism. Instead of thinking of the roles in terms of print media, let’s project the roles into the future and discuss them in terms of scholastic media’s use of social media.

And, since no one has definite answers for these uses, let’s look at potential uses in terms of questions  for future discussion.

• Should scholastic media be involved in branding? If we are heavily involved in branding are we, by nature of the media, becoming more interested in advertising and public relations than objective reporting?

• What is the best role in student media for social media: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google groups  etc)? It is branding? Is it letting our audiences know what we do doing and what to expect? Is it reporting breaking informtion? Is it some combination? What are the plusses and minuses of each in terms of mission, role legal standards and ethics? You might take a look at the issues raised by Mike Wise, sports commentator of radio and The Washington Post when he knowingly posted false information on his Twitter site. Later, he railed at those who did not factcheck. That may be, but what is his responsibility? Today The Post suspended Wise for a month, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported Wise told his morning radio audience. Poynter covered the event, including reference to the Post’s ombudsman’s comments.

• What is your forum role for online media? Should your students moderate comments or allow them at all? Should they be limited to just students?  From the CSJ blog: “Remember, if your existing letters policy says, in the first sentence, you are a forum and encourage letters (comment) but in the next sentence says you will edit for length and clarity, or moderate for this and that, are you really being “open”? Even if you add the phrase “without changing the meaning,” is that possible to do? If I wrote an 800-word letter and you cut it to 400, even if YOU don’t think you changed my meaning, I’ll bet I would think you did. And if the policy says you will edit for “good taste” or even correct mistakes, have you limited my expression?” Or, is there a developing standard that will allow the forum but still enable free expression?

• If we look to use social media for coverage, what kind of story works best? Worst? What kind of story (assuming your students have already outlined their roles using the framework provided by the CSJblog) is most crucial to the role of the medium?

• Can promotion and objective coverage realistically come from the same use of a single social media outlet (Twitter, Facebook)? Should our students mix opinion and objective reporting using the same outlet?

•It has been said that reporting on the web is probably not the place for depth and longform reporting. What evidence supports this? Can we find evidence that depth and longform flourish on the web? An excellent read from Nieman Journalism Lab suggests some dangers of thinking in terms of “quick find” terms on news searches like Google News and others.

• What is optimal length for web stories? Why? Practioners do not all agree that short (someone suggested 250 words) is better? Take a look at respectied news websites.

• In using social media, what are the roles for breaking news, verification and perspective. Are these inherently contradictory? Should we view one as more important than others? How should each come across in our teaching?

We’d love to see a discussion get started here, on JEA’s listserv, on JEA’s Digital Media site or on any other site open to all advisers.

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