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Students say Seattle School Board threatens censorship

November 5th, 2011 · 10 Comments

Update Monday Nov. 7: Seattle schools have withdrawn this proposal, which was on tonight’s school board agenda.

“Based on a shared concern between district leadership and the board, this policy will be pulled from the current list of updates, scheduled for board action Dec. 7, and will be revisited in 2012,” Interim Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield said this afternoon

The proposal had drawn wide coverage over the weekend and today, including from electronic media and our news partners The Seattle Times.

“As a former journalism teacher, it is important for me – as I know it is for our board – that we uphold our practice of trusting our teachers to educate our students on the rights and responsibilities that come with freedom of expression and a free press,” Enfield said.

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This post is from our sister site My Ballard, but pertains to all Seattle public school papers.

Journalism students at Ballard High School say a proposal in front of the Seattle School Board violates their first amendment rights. They say the “new policy would remove student responsibility for content and set the stage for administrative censorship.”

The proposal, which was introduced at the last School Board meeting, gives school principals the right to review student newspapers before they’re published.

Kate Clark, the editor-in-chief of the Ballard Talisman, and Katie Kennedy, the managing editor, are furious at the proposal. On Friday, the duo spent their afternoon plastering downtown Ballard with these fliers (.pdf).

Clark and Kennedy are encouraging community members to attend the next School Board meeting on November 16th. Wippel tells us that action will be taken on December 7th, the day before the general election that includes four incumbent board members.

From the flier:

CURRENT POLICY: Students have the right to FREEDOM OF THE PRESS and may express their personal opinions in writing. They must take full responsibility for the content of their publications by identifying themselves as authors and or editors of the publication. They are not allowed to make personal attacks or publish libelous or obscene material. –Seattle Public Schools Student Rights and Responsibilities 2011-2012

PROPOSED POLICY: The principal may request to review any copy prior to its publication. Material must be free of content that: runs counter to the instructional program; is libelous; obscene or profane; contains threats of violence towards a person; invades a person’s privacy; demeans any race, religion, sex, or ethnic group; advocates the violation of the law or school rule; advertises the tobacco products, liquor, illicit drugs, or drug paraphernalia; materially and substantially disrupts the operations of the school; or, is inappropriate for the maturity level of the students. –Superintendent Procedure 3220SP

The students currently work with an adult adviser on the Talisman, and they can print whatever they want, using journalistic best-practices. They believe that if the proposed changes are approved, 80 percent of their content would be cut. “We challenge a lot of the things that happen,” Clark says. “We don’t want that right to challenge authority to be taken away from us.”

Students do have free expression, Teresa Wippel with Seattle Public Schools says, but the district can regulate some of what they write. This is a way, Wippel tells us, for the district to have a uniform policy on student publications. After checking with the district attorney, she says that because the students are working on school grounds, using school resources, this proposal is well within their rights on the state and federal level.

The Superintendent Procedure 3220SP states:

The Superintendent is authorized to develop guidelines assuring that students are able to enjoy free expression of opinion while maintaining orderly conduct of the school.

In order for a student publication or speech to be restricted for causing a material and substantial disruption, there must exist specific facts upon which it would be reasonable to forecast that a clear and present likelihood of an immediate substantial disruption to normal school activity would occur if the material were published and distributed. Material and substantial disruption includes, but is not necessarily limited to: student riots; destruction of property; widespread shouting or boisterous conduct; or substantial student participation in a school boycott, sit in, stand-in, walk-out or other form of activity.

“The idea is, obviously, we want to educate future journalists on their rights and responsibilities,” Wippel says.

“How are we supposed to learn to be responsible when we’re not given responsibility in the first place?” Kennedy says.

To read the proposal, 3220SP, click here (page 50-54 of the .pdf)

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