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Upgrade in Virginia policy downgrades student free expression

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by John Bowen, MJE

High school journalists in Virginia’s Frederick County recently had their student publications policies upgraded by the school board, the Student Press Law Center reported. 

Student journalists say they don’t think much of the changes.

“The newspaper was already censored multiple times last year, and the staff has dwindled from about 30 students a year ago to just 10 this fall,” co-editor Christian Hellwig told the SPLC reporter.

The changed policy has some interesting points.
• The principal is designated the editor.
• The faculty sponsor is the co-editor; students may be assistant editors.
• Student media are not intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.

The SPLC article reported the new policy would not change much because, as co-editor Christian Hellwig said, “The newspaper was already censored multiple times last year, and the staff has dwindled from about 30 students a year ago to just 10 this fall.”

And that’s not all.

“We’re not interested in engaging in an interview.” the principal told the SPLC reporter.

Among articles censored this year was a story about a local event supporting the Women’s March.

“I interviewed a bunch of students at a surrounding school and at my school,” said reporter Azrael Stavely, “and [administrators] told me I couldn’t publish it just because it might be deemed as controversial, and they wanted me to get a Republican standpoint for it.”

The updated policy refers to Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier but does not mention Tinker v Des Moines. Both decisions are relevant without being dominant.

Stavely told the SPLC she did not focus the article on whether student participants were politically involved.

For student media facing similar prior review and restraint conditions, think about questions they can ask administrators, school board members and community leaders concerning why they review and restrain student media:
• How do students learn to be journalistically responsible without making decisions of content?
• Can material be truly factual if it goes through a review and restraint process?
• Can students and administrators agree upon definitions of what journalists publish? Specifically, how do terms like “controversial” fall into the revised policy for restraint?  
• Shouldn’t administrators and students agree on what “recognized principles of journalism” and “appropriate journalistic techniques” are?  Only then can all participants, including citizens who see student publications, understand what journalistic principles are at stake and why?
• How do prior review and restraint teach students and their audiences about free, truthful and coherent journalism, let alone civic engagement in a democracy?   

Maybe there are some lessons we can learn from this situation:
• Why and how do administrators and school officials see educational value in prior review and restraint? What educational values do students, or the larger community, learn from its use?
• Can student journalists learn from situations like these how to develop a localized non-review statement and educate school faculty and community of its importance? 
• Shouldn’t we expect a public official like the principal, or her bosses on the school board, to respond to fair questions about public policy? 

Find additional resources at these sites:

• Prior review

• JEA board defines prior review

• A pillar of strength: The Tinker decision

• Talking Points about student free expression

• Law-ethics manual

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