Proposed Seattle school-newspaper policy raises censorship concerns
A proposed policy would give principals the power to review student newspapers before they are published and prevent publication if they deem the material to be "not in keeping with the school's instructional mission and values," among other criteria.
Seattle Times education reporter
A proposal being considered by the Seattle School Board could have a chilling impact on free speech in the city's high schools, First Amendment activists say.
The proposed policy would give principals the authority to review high-school newspapers before they are published and would allow them to stop publication if they deem material to be libelous, obscene or "not in keeping with the school's instructional mission and values," among other criteria.
The proposal was introduced along with dozens of other policy updates at last week's School Board meeting, and it has since been debated on various neighborhood blogs.
Two top editors at the Ballard High School paper, The Talisman, spent the weekend posting signs around the school titled "Student 1st Amendment Rights at Risk."
The board will vote on the proposal Dec. 7.
It is the district's first attempt to establish guidelines for oversight of school papers. While a clause in the student handbook provides for freedom of the press, the district has left specific implementation up to individual schools, spokeswoman Teresa Wippel said.
Wippel added that the proposal is meant to prevent disruptions of the learning environment — a power given to schools by law.
The language in the proposal is essentially word for word what is suggested by the Washington State School Directors' Association, a group that works with school boards across the state. While the association has recommended the policy since 2001, many districts have opted for less restrictive guidelines, association spokesman David Brine said.
In Seattle, the district agreed with the recommended language because it clearly outlines what is and is not protected, said Harium Martin-Morris, chairman of the School Board's curriculum and instruction committee, which approved the proposal at its last meeting.
"It's to make sure we don't do things that are libelous or inflammatory or any of those things," Martin-Morris said.
But Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, says the proposal goes much further than that.
"It opens the door for administrators to pretty much censor at will," she said. "It's just sort of, if you don't like the way something sounds or you think it's going to cause a phone call or something, then all of a sudden it doesn't keep with the values of the school."
The two student editors at Ballard, who are working with Schrier, agree.
"If our principal is looking at everything we write, we may lose the ability to cover what we want to cover," said student Kate Clark.
The other student, Katie Kennedy, said The Talisman's adviser makes suggestions but currently can't veto articles.
Schrier, Clark and Kennedy also said the oversight added in the proposed policy would make the district legally liable for content in the paper.
They pointed to a recent legal decision by a Washington state judge who ruled that Seattle Public Schools was not liable for an article in The Roosevelt News, Roosevelt High School's paper, in part because of the district's freedom of the press.
Despite that ruling, district officials say another judge may find the district liable because student newspapers are printed using district resources — even if the paper funds itself, it is still produced on school property. Thus, it is in the district's interest to ensure that papers don't print anything that could lead to a lawsuit, they contend.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com
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