Pages Navigation Menu

The fight to save Seattle’s scholastic journalism: A good story with a positive outcome


By Vince DeMiero
Nov. 15, 2011

Student press rights are alive and well in the Seattle School District thanks in large part to a savvy reporter, passionately vigilant student publication editors, thoughtful publication advisers and a student-centered superintendent.

What happened? In short, a terribly flawed student publications policy almost made it into the official remix of hundreds of policy changes and updates that the school board is proposing in Seattle. This same policy – known as 3220 and 3220SP – has signaled the end to a responsible and free student press in dozens of districts across the state, most notably in Everett and Puyallup. The stakes were high.

But this is a good story, one with a positive outcome for student journalists. A story that deserves kudos on many levels. So, applause goes to Phyllis Fletcher of KUOW who broke this story. Fletcher is a graduate of Seattle’s Garfield High School where she worked on the Messenger newsmagazine staff. Praise for the incredibly thoughtful young editors and reporters on the Seattle high school publication staffs who worked so hard to get the word out about this terribly flawed policy. Tip of the hat to the advisers in Seattle who provided appropriate support to their student journalists.

Applause, too, to Supt. Susan Enfield who really gets it on this issue and was courageous enough to step away from Policy 3220 – a policy, by the way, that the SSD did not write, but is one of hundreds contained within a template of policies from the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA). Frankly, 3220 needs to be seriously edited or deleted.

WSSDA does a disservice to its members and to thousands of students by keeping this policy in its mix of templates.

So, what’s the big deal? Why shouldn’t public school principals and administrators have total control over the student press? Isn’t it about time these student journalists learn that it’s the publisher who ultimately controls content? Really, who do these students think they are demanding privileges not even a Seattle Times reporter would have. At least those are some of the typical comments I hear time and again whenever student press rights are challenged.

To be clear, there really is no commercial or corporate publication that is analogous to a student publication at a public high school. I think this is why some folks raise these types of questions. First of all, student journalists must abide by the same laws and ethical guidelines as any other journalist with regard to libel, invasion of privacy, accuracy, liability, etc. Student journalists who I have advised have been served search warrants, subpoenas, etc. They had no special privilege. The newsroom that my students work in is really not much different than what you’d find at a small commercial publication, except that the editors, reporters, photographers, ad sales folks, etc. happen to be high school students.

But that’s where the similarities start to break sharply from those who work for corporate or commercial media. A true student publication, like the one I advise, exists because it is the collective intellectual work product of a group of public high school students. Its mission is to be the publication of record for its audience as well as to serve as a learning laboratory for the student editors, reporters, photographers, etc.

Importantly, unlike a commercial newspaper, a student publication does not exist to serve the interests of a publisher or shareholders. In fact, I would argue that the collective group of students is the publisher of a true student newspaper – not the

school, not the school board, not the principal, not the superintendent. Why? Because the work these students create (at least those working on an open forum publication) is the intellectual property of those students journalists; they own it.

The students I advise, for example, are in charge of the entire content, layout and design of their publication. The only thing they do not do is put the ink on the paper. Additionally, the publication is nearly 100 percent financially self-sustaining.

Some would argue that the school and district provides my salary, the building, the space, the heat, the lights, the equipment, etc. and, therefore, the school owns the paper.

I disagree.

In my English class, if I assign my students to write a collection of poems, even if it’s for a grade, the school has no copyright claim to those students’ work. The school district has no legal basis for claiming ownership of this type of student work, so why would it be any different with a co-curricular or extra-curricular student publication?

Or how about this analogy (credit for this goes to my daughter, herself a former editor of the publication I advise): Let’s say you decide to write a book, but you don’t have a computer, you don’t have access to the Internet, you don’t even have paper or a pencil to write with. So, you go to your local public library where you are provided access to a computer and the Internet, assistance from the librarian, and lots of paper and even a pencil or two. It’s nice and cozy and warm there, too, and well lit and free from distractions. It takes you a couple of months and numerous visits, but you eventually finish the book and submit it for publication.

Who owns it? The library? No.

The citizens who pay taxes to provide library services? No.

You do. It’s your intellectual property.

Similarly, the taxpayers in a public school district provide student journalists with basic resources, but neither they nor the school administrators who work on their behalf can claim ownership of the student publication.

Another important point to consider is that student journalists are in the unique position of having to rely on sources and report on people who are essentially their superiors – principals, teachers, coaches, district officials, etc. Additionally, in a public school setting, those same people are also government employees.

Is it proper for journalists to turn over editorial control to their sources? Is it okay to turn over control to government officials?

I don’t think so.

That’s why savvy school districts and administrators hire well-trained publication advisers. In my role, I am both an educator and an adviser – not an editor, publisher, censor, etc. I advise the student editors throughout the entire publication process and they have on occasion thoughtfully disagreed with my advice.

Additionally, when a school or district sets up open forum status for its publications, it is no longer responsible or liable for the content of those publications. In fact, the Puyallup and Seattle school districts have recently won major legal victories because of the open forum status of their publications.

In fact, did you know that no public school district in the United States has ever been successfully sued because of its student newspaper? Pretty amazing track record, don’t you think? However, lots of public school districts have been successfully sued because they infringed on students’ First Amendment rights.

So, is there any potential legal risk involved in having an open public forum student newspaper associated with a public high school? Sure, but that risk pales in comparison to other liabilities that school districts deal with on a far more frequent basis (athletics, transportation, discipline, facilities, etc.). Still, if you believed even a fraction of the scary statements I frequently hear from district administrators, school district legal advisers and less-than-informed community members, you’d swear student journalists were completely running amok.

On the contrary, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of your local high school publication or visit their website and look at what student journalists are doing today right here and across the country. It’s pretty amazing, really. And while it isn’t always great journalism, the vast majority of their work is passionate and clear evidence that journalism is far from dead.

– 30 –

Leave a Comment