August 23, 2010

Student Press Law Center Files Amicus Curiae Brief in IHS Student Newspaper Case

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The debate over First Amendment rights in public high schools made a small advance Jun. 15, when the Student Press Law Center —    along with the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association — filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to rule in favor of an Ithaca public school paper subjected to censorship.

The Ithaca High School Tattler went to court in fall of 2004, when former IHS Principal Joe Wilson refused to allow The Tattler to publish a cartoon criticizing the school’s sex education policies.

The District Court decision, which dismissed several of the former Tattler editors’ claims, was granted appeal Jan. 26. The federal appeals case will likely be heard in spring of 2011, Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the SPLC said.

“We think this is the most important case for high school journalism in at last 20 years because the speech that is being censored is so close to the heart of what journalism is supposed to be about — using humor and satire to point out shortcomings [in the administration],” LoMonte said. “That seems like the kind of journalism should be the hardest for a school to censor because it speaks directly to public concern.”

Robert Ochshorn, editor in chief of The Tattler in 2004 when the suit initiated, also asserted the importance of this case for the future of high school journalism.

“I think that there is a place for journalism in the 21st century and if we want to create journalists to occupy this space they need to be at an early age equipped with the legal protection that allows them to pursue investigations and to develop a critical mindset and to report based on the best of their abilities and not what is most convenient for a school administration to see written,” Ochshorn said.

According to LoMonte, many of today’s problems for high school journalism lie in the autonomy granted to principals by state and federal governments.

“We can’t have courts treating principals like they are infallible,” he said. “Most of them are wonderful people, but they are government officials and [as such should be open to scrutiny].”

The best way to preserve the rights of student journalists, LoMonte said, is to return to a legal status protecting speech historically sanctioned in schools.

Probably the easiest and best solution is for every state to pass state level protections so that we go back to the way that speech historically was protected in our schools,

“Starting with the 1960s the supreme court struck a very careful balance that made it very difficult for public schools to censor editorial commentary,” LoMonte said, referring to the 1969 outcome of Tinker vs. Des Moines School District.  In 1988, the court retreated from the protection of students speech in Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, placing the power of censorship in the hands of administrators.

Currently, legislation in seven states overturns the Hazelwood standard, only allowing schools to step in if speech is disruptive or illegal. At the school level, declaring a student publication as  a “forum for free expression” similarly places editorial control in the hands of student editors, unless speech illegal or disruptive.

According to LoMonte, IHS did operate its papers as forums for student expression. LoMonte criticized the District Court ruling.

“The judge failed to recognize that a forum publication is entitled to any greater level of protection, so [he] rolled the law back to the days of Hazelwood even though the school  — by its own policies — indicated a policy that allowed students more freedom,” LoMonte said.

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch