Teach students responsibility — and freedom

February 19, 2009

Kentucky legislators always say they like to improve education and protect freedom. A bill before the House of Representatives would let them do both, and it was inspired by a 20-year-old college sophomore.

House Bill 43 would restore rights that high school students lost in 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that freedom of the press doesn’t apply to them. Since then, school administrators have been able to censor student media for any reason. They also can punish student journalists who write things they don’t like, as well as teachers who let it happen.

Rep. Brent Yonts, a Greenville Democrat, is sponsoring the bill, which is now before the House Education Committee. Seven other states have passed similar laws, and bills are pending in Connecticut and Washington.

Yonts filed the bill at the request of a constituent, Josh Moore of Greenville, who is studying journalism at Western Kentucky University. Moore has created a Web site to promote it: www.kystudentpress.org.

Moore said he had a good relationship with the principal when he was editor of the student newspaper at Muhlenberg South High School. But he knew others elsewhere weren’t so lucky. He also knew that student journalists didn’t pursue some good stories because they had no rights and their teachers had no protection.

It’s a big problem nationally, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. His group gets 500 calls a year about high school media censorship, and he thinks many more cases are never reported because students and teachers have little recourse.

“Many principals want the student newspaper to really be a public relations arm of the school or school district,” said David Greer of the Kentucky Press Association, which strongly supports the bill. “They don’t want any serious reporting. They don’t want anything that might be controversial.”

Moore stresses that his bill wouldn’t prevent principals from reviewing student media before publication. It also wouldn’t stop them from censoring content that is libelous, disruptive, encourages disobeying the law or school rules or amounts to an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

The bill would require schools to adopt written policies governing student expression, and it would keep school officials from being held legally liable for student media content. It also would protect teachers from being “terminated, transferred, removed or otherwise disciplined for refusing to suppress the protected expression of student journalists.”

LoMonte said one of the biggest objections school administrators raise to giving student journalists more freedom — the fear of lawsuits — is unfounded.

“There are exactly zero published court decisions in the history of the United States in which a K-12 public school has been held financially liable for injury inflicted by a student publication — zero,” he said. “Athletic teams are by far a greater source of litigation, and yet no one proposes to switch to two-hand touch football because football injuries provoke lawsuits.”

The Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling reversed a 1969 decision that gave high school students the same freedoms and responsibilities as other journalists.

That was the law in 1975-76, when I was editor of the Lafayette Times at Lexington’s Lafayette High School. We had a pretty feisty newspaper, and I’m sure the principal didn’t like some of the things we wrote. But he never tried to censor us — or even complained.

To see if my memory was correct, I called him Thursday.

“I don’t recall anything coming out that caused any trouble,” said Dwight Price, who retired in 1987 after 15 years as Lafayette’s principal. “I think students need freedom and they need creativity. … Most kids today are level-headed.”

Price said the key to good, responsible student journalism is appointing good teachers with some journalism training to oversee it. That’s certainly what he had in my high school newspaper’s adviser, Julie Dodd, who later earned a Ph.D. and has taught journalism at the University of Florida for many years.

“Time and time again you see teachers without any journalism training … They don’t know what their rights and responsibilities are,” said Greer, who administers the Kentucky High School Journalism Association, which the press association started a dozen years ago and has 103 member schools.

Moore thinks that giving more freedom and protection to students and teachers would create a framework for improving journalism education in high schools. “This is a way of putting it in a structured environment where they could teach students what is right and what is wrong,” he said. “It helps the educational process.”

The educational process is what it’s about.

High school media doesn’t exist to train future journalists so much as to train future citizens. In a world awash in information, citizens need to know how to tell good journalism from bad, truth from propaganda, substance from fluff. That requires training — and freedom. And it’s an area where Kentucky can lead the way.