The free-speech rights of student journalists in Pennsylvania may be seriously reduced if proposed changes to the state education code pass, some school newspaper advisers and the state press association say.
The state board of education in April quietly proposed changes to the code’s “freedom of expression” section, cutting it from 26 paragraphs to four. The revisions, if approved by the legislature, would give school leaders broader power over what school newspapers publish. A board of education ad hoc committee is reviewing that section and expected to issue its final recommendations later this year.
“The state is opening the door to more censorship,” said John Doyle, the newspaper adviser at Norristown Area High School. “For some schools, it could be devastating.”
Of special concern to student-press advocates is the deletion of the word “immediate” in the regulation stating students cannot publish material that “threatens immediate harm to the welfare of the school or community.” The change would let school leaders indefinitely bar students from publishing stories or photos, said George Taylor, the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Press Association.
Another point of contention is a sentence in the broad guidelines stating students can’t print material that is “vulgar, lewd, obscene, or plainly offensive.” Mr. Taylor argued that such language was so broad that administrators could apply that standard to exclude anything.
“The current guidelines spell out very explicitly what’s expected on both sides. It’s replaced by something that’s downright vague,” he added. “It’s a misnomer to label this section ‘Students Rights and Responsibilities’ because they aren’t there anymore.”
The organization has written a letter to the state board urging it to withdraw the proposed changes. Mr. Taylor said that his group promotes responsible student journalism. “Kids should be protected by the same rules as professional journalists, and therefore should behave in a professional manner,” he said. “It’s not carte blanche in whatever you want to say.”
The revisions would drop Pennsylvania from the short list of states with statutes or regulations specifically protecting freedom of expression in the student press. The other states are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Washington, according to the national Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. The Pennsylvania board proposed the changes because members believe that section of the code needs to be brought “more in line” with court rulings bolstering school administrators’ authority over student newspapers, said Jeff McCloud, the spokesman for the state board of education.
“This has not been updated in many years,” he said of Chapter 12 of the state code. Mr. McCloud noted that the proposed revisions deal not just with free expression, but with all the regulations in that chapter, which covers subjects ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance to corporal punishment. He also stressed that the board welcomes public comment, and that the proposed new regulations “are by no means set in stone.”
The main U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the freedom of the student media was in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988. In that case, the court ruled that school newspapers were an extension of the curriculum and not a public forum. Thus, school administrators may change or delete anything from the school newspaper as long as the material is education-related—a definition that lends itself to broad interpretations, observers say. Stephen Turner, a senior and the editor in chief of Norristown High’s newspaper, said the changes would punish student journalists for doing their jobs.
“Kids will be scared to cover certain stories or to write the whole truth if they think they’re going to get in trouble for it,” he said.
When asked about student journalists’ concerns about the proposed changes, Mr. McCloud said, “Students will experience a bit of the real world. Every reporter has an editor and a publisher, and if they say, ‘You can’t run this,’ then you can’t.
“The Supreme Court ruling has given some latitude to administrators, and they’re the publishers of school papers.”
Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, rejects comparisons of public schools’ authority to that of private publishers. Since public schools are government entities, he argues, they don’t have the same rights as private publishers and must be more open to viewpoints.
“They’re not the same,” he said. “That’s the simple reason why the First Amendment was put there in the first place.”
Pennsylvania’s proposed changes are also troubling because they don’t focus on education, said Mr. Goodman, who worries that other states may follow suit. “It sounds like a policy change being drafted by lawyers, not educators,” he said. “They’re not thinking through what they should be teaching, but instead what they can legally get away with.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Pa. Board Mulls Tighter Reins On Student Press