Local policy

A look at an Idaho school district’s board policy on student publications


William Love, Sandpoint High School

It’s the journalist in me. I can’t wait to receive the agenda and minutes for our district’s school board every month. There is so much information available that it often leads to story suggestions for the student publication I advise.

If you don’t already do so, inform your staff  that these documents are available to them and the public. When I was working full-time as a journalist covering a small school district, a secretary provided me a printout of the board agenda and minutes prior to each meeting. So this is something that the “professionals” do.

Sometimes you will find the information in the agenda or minutes involves or has an impact on your publication. That’s what happened to me a couple of months ago when my district’s school publications policy appeared in the agenda for a simple clerical change.

I have to admit, I didn’t even know our district had school publications policy. I do spend some time with my students looking at board policy that has an impact on their rights, but a publications policy is something I never thought to ask about. So my second piece of advice: if you haven’t done so already, check to see if your district has a policy regarding school publications.

After reading through my district’s policy, I felt it was for the most part very pro student journalist. The policy does cite Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, and Idaho doesn’t afford any special protections to high school journalists like in a handful other states such as North Dakota. But the first line of the district policy seems to place the decision-making for high school publications like the newspaper I advise squarely with the student editors.

Still, I wanted to get some more feedback on the policy. I contacted one of the hardest working people in student journalism, Frank LoMonte from the Student Press Law Center, to see if he would provide that feedback. Frank did, and he gave me permission to share his thoughts on our district’s policy in this article. Frank’s comments are in italics.

Policy 1

“Hi and thanks for getting in touch. I agree this is a decent policy — of course, I’d always prefer not to see Hazelwood referenced, but the language is not bad. As I read it, basically as long as the students don’t libel anyone, they get to make their own professional judgments, which is pretty darn good.”

Policy 2

“That language about lower grades isn’t something I have seen, but to be honest we don’t see a lot of middle-school policies, so it’s possible that the language is more common than I think. Honestly, I don’t know how that would be interpreted — I guess the distinction is that you wouldn’t expect students to publish a newspaper as part of an after-school club in middle school, so the “adviser” language doesn’t apply there. I don’t know that it carries a lot of clear meaning for those students’ press freedom, but (again being honest) we almost never get a press-freedom issue at the middle-school level and I think, if push came to shove, the courts would be MUCH less protective of a 12-year-old journalist’s rights than a 17-year-old. So I guess I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it.”

Policy 3

“That last line about no unauthorized distribution would not hold up, constitutionally, unless there is a clear approval process enabling a student to get that authorization. We just wrote about a case in Washington state where a federal court threw out a school publications policy that prohibited students from handing out religious literature and other non-student publications: http://www.splc.org/article/2015/06/washington-court-strikes-school-literature-policy

“So it definitely would expose the school to a First Amendment challenge if a student non-disruptively distributed an “underground newspaper” in the cafeteria during lunch and got disciplined for violating this policy. There has to be SOME reasonable opportunity for a student publisher to reach his intended audience — a typical policy would look something like this: https://www.unionps.org/filesBoardBook/5502_Distribution_of_Materials_by_Secondary_Students.pdf

A big thank you to Frank for taking the time to provide feedback. Frank and the SPLC staff do a tremendous job. My last piece of advice: If you ever have any questions or issues, don’t hesitate to contact SPLC.

Finally, if you have examples of district policies on student publications, please share them in the comments section.