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October 30, 2000

Students Press for
First Amendment Rights . . .


Protected Speech for High School Students
School officials cannot:

•  Ban student expression solely because it is controversial, takes extreme, "fringe" or minority opinions, or is distasteful, unpopular or unpleasant;
•  Ban the publication or distribution of material relating to sexual issues including, but not limited to, virginity, birth control and sexually-transmitted diseases (including AIDS);
•  Censor or punish the occasional use of indecent, vulgar or so called "four-letter" words in student publications;
•  Prohibit criticism of the policies, practices or performance of teachers, school officials, the school itself or of any public officials;
•  Cut off funds to official student media because of disagreement over editorial policy;
•  Ban student expression that merely advocates illegal conduct without proving that such speech is directed toward and will actually cause imminent unlawful action;
•  Ban the publication or distribution by students of material written by non-students;
•  Prohibit the endorsement of candidates for student office or for public office at any level.
(Student Press Law Center -- Model Guidelines for Student Media)

Student Papers

We've all heard of the first amendment and the right to a free press. But just how does that apply to high school students putting out a school paper? And what, if anything, can school officials censor?

Questions about what student publications can and cannot print have led to disagreements between students and advisors and administrators. A 1988 Supreme Court decision allowing school administrators to censor some student articles seems to have generated confusion as to just how far students can go, and what school administrators can do about it.

The decision has been misunderstood by school officials "who interpreted this decision as providing them with almost an unlimited license to censor when it fact it certainly does not go that far," says Mike Hiestand, staff attorney for the Student Press Law Center.

Prior to the case, school officials could only censor student expression if they could show that it "would result in a serious physical disruption of the school or if they could show that the speech was otherwise unlawful" such as libelous or obscene. The Supreme Court ruling now allows school officials to censor articles when they have a "reasonable educational justification for doing so," Hiestand says.

"It certainly provides school authorities with a lot more authority" than before, "but it's not an unlimited license to censor," he says.

The vast majority of school censorship issues in Maryland are not about situations that would be "disruptive," but are "situations where the students want to write something that is in some way critical of the school, or could be bad public relations for the school," says Gary Clites, president of the Maryland Scholastic Press Association.

For example, school principals may not want poor test scores published or articles about crime in the school. "Frankly, parents and the other students in the school have a right to know those things," says Clites. In his four years as president of the association, three cases have gone to arbitration, all of which were decided in the students' favor. In one instance last year, student journalists at Prince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg wanted to print the name of a student accused of murder.

"There is a fine line where student newspapers shouldn't cross, but I think that the students and staff of a school do have the right to know what is going on in the school, whether good or bad," says Jeff Davis, editor-in-chief of the Warrior Newspaper at Sherwood High School in Sandy Springs.

"If it does put the school in a bad light, but it is important to get that point across to the public, then I think it is important that high school students have the right to publish that in their paper as well as be protected," says Davis.

Asked why high school students' free speech should be protected under the law, Hiestand says, "The principal is a government official. He no more owns that student newspaper than he owns a school bus. The newspaper is a mechanism for teaching journalism at the school and students have the first amendment right to be free from censorship by government officials."

And just as students have the right to free speech, they also have the journalist's responsibility to avoid libel, obscenity and invasion of privacy. Working on a student newspaper "is an educational experience for the students," says Clites. "Part of that educational experience means that they need to learn the role of a newspaper in a democratic society, and part of that is freedom of speech and freedom of the press. "

Hiestand is concerned that frustration with censorship could drive students to independent online publishing without the help of professional advisors who can teach them how to be responsible journalists.

"Students and the administration should and can work together very well," says Davis. "Our Web site is part of the county Web site system. We still have the same limits as we would in our newspaper, but the possibilities are endless as to printing it in other Web sites. There are a lot of Web sites that specifically foster censored newspaper articles from high school newspapers."

The proliferation of such sites "does sort of knock the props out of the idea that you can censor student speech," says Clites. The move to publish censored articles is not confined to the Web, either. "Since censorship has grown across the nation over the last ten years, professional publications have been willing to publish the things that have been censored out of school publications."

The Related Sites are provided for information purposes. NM is not responsible for the accuracy of their content.

• Community
  >  Maryland Department of Education, state agency with general control and supervision over public schools and the educational interests of Maryland.
  >  Maryland Scholastic Press Association, a free membership organization to support student journalists and publication advisers across Maryland and the District of Columbia & featured panelist.
  >  The Warrior Online, Sherwood High School, Sandy Spring & featured panelist.
  >  The Quill, Bryn Mawr School, Baltimore.
  >  The Patriot Press Online, Northern High School, Owings.
  >  Horizonline, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, DC.
• General
  >  Student Press Law Center, the nation's only legal assistance agency devoted exclusively to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the first amendment. The center provides free legal advice and information as well as low-cost educational materials for student journalists on a wide variety of legal topics & featured panelist.
  >  American Civil Liberties Union, information on a wide variety of free speech issues, including free press and student rights.
  >  Freedom Forum, an international center for dialogue and debate on a variety of free expression. Information on a variety of media issues, including first amendment and free press.
  >  Free Expression Network, an alliance of organizations dedicated to protecting the first amendment right of free expression and the values it represents, and to opposing governmental efforts to suppress constitutionally protected speech.
• Other Information
  >  Columbia Scholastic Press Association, an international student press association uniting student journalists and faculty advisers at schools and colleges through educational conferences, idea exchanges and award programs.
  >  Journalism Education Association, national organization of journalism teachers and publications advisers, media professionals, press associations, adviser organizations, libraries, yearbook companies, newspapers, radio stations and departments of journalism.
  >  Wiretap, an independent information source by and for socially conscious youth, Wiretap showcases investigative news articles, personal essays and opinions, artwork and activism resources that challenge stereotypes, inspire creativity, foster dialogue and give young people a voice in the media.

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