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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Seattle Times Needs to Go Back to High School

posted by on March 25 at 11:05 AM

In an editorial titled “Free Speech, In and Out of School,” published this morning in the The Seattle Times, the editorial board urges the US Supreme Court to protect free speech for students. Or so it seems at first.

Weighing in on a case that’s currently before the U.S. Supreme Court involving a student from Alaska who got in trouble for holding a provocative banner across the street from his high school (the banner read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”), the Seattle Times writes: “The courts should not overturn Tinker [a 1969 SCOTUS case that guaranteed students’ First Amendment rights.]”

Unfortunately, the Seattle Times doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of Tinker.

They correctly argue that the student was standing across the street from the school, so the state has no right to qaush his right to free speech. But they add that if the student had been on school grounds it would be a different story. They write:

The student was in a public setting — across the street from the school but not on its grounds — and should have been free to exercise free speech… The court should not overturn Tinker. But there are limits to free speech, particularly inside a school. School administrators, for example, can regulate speech on campus or at a school-sponsored event if it is vulgar, disruptive or interferes with education. An administrator of any school, public or private, needs that authority.

The Seattle Times needs to go back to high school. By drawing a distinction between off-school grounds and on-school grounds, they completely miss the point of Tinker, the standard they claim to support.

In Tinker the SC famously wrote:

It can hardly be argued that…students…shed their constitutional rights to freedom of the schoolhouse gate. Students in school as well as out of school are ‘Persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.

So, by drawing a distinction between on and off-school grounds, The Seattle Times is in fact coming out against Tinker. Indeed, The Seattle Times uses today’s editorial to come out against Rep. Dave Upthegrove’s bill, currently moving through the state legislature in Olympia. Upthegrove’s bill aims to reinstate the Tinker Standard.

What The Seattle Times doesn’t seem to know (or chooses to ignore?) is that Tinker was overturned in 1988 in the Hazelwood decision —which held that adminstrators could censor speech for purely educational (subjective) reasons.

Luckily, states are allowed to be more liberal than the Feds when it comes to protecting rights. There’s currenlty a move in state legislatures all over the country to reinstate Tinker—which makes censorship, particularly of student papers, a more difficult task for school administrators. Under the Tinker standard, administrators would have to show that the speech in question actually disrupts the school day. This is parallel to citizens’ rights to speech in the real world—where speech is broad, but certainly limited: You cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie house. Rep. Upthegrove’s bill is part of this effort.

What everyone misses in this debate on student speech in newspapers (where students should have the same rights as journalists in the real world) is this: There is a check on students akin to the check on professional reporters in the real world: The faculty advisor acts as an editor, checking for the things that real editors check for, like libel. More important, journalism teachers give out grades. Like an editor in the real world who has authority over a reporter, the teacher’s power to hand out Cs, Ds, and Fs deters students from publishing irresponsible journalism.

However, if the teacher is like an editor-in-chief, the principal is like the state. If the article makes it past the teacher it shouldn’t get shut down by the state. This is a valuable civics lesson for student journalists who one day will be acting as journalists in the real world, holding the state accountable. They should not be taught the undemocratic lesson that the state has the final say.

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I wish the school administrators recruited better writers for my high school paper, which was run mostly by future frat boys. They used racial insults, most specifically to call out a couple Middle Eastern guys in the school during Gulf War I. There was a controversy about it (mostly people thinking the two guys were 'too sensitive') and the editors later apologized.

I don't think the paper should have been censored, but I didn't see the school administrators going out of their way to increase the quality of the paper.

Posted by hmm | March 25, 2007 1:24 PM


It amazes me that the majority of the staff at The Stranger obvioulsy understand proper jopurnalism. Regrettably, this is discovered only by reading your critiques of other, more reputable publications.

It's just a shame that you don't excercise the same professionalism when writing your own material.

Quite frankly, when I look for examples or irrseponsible writing, The Stranger stands at the forefront.

Your current cover story by Erica C. Barnett is a perfect example. The Strangers position on the Surface option is laughable.

How about going back and redoing the fantasy picture you are presenting to your readers.

Here's a few examples:

- Ever notice the amount of warehouses below the Viaduct? Please make a graphic chnage to your Surface option drawing to show the maximum height condo lining the western edge of the surface option wherever a warehouse or other less profitable business now stands. There is no zoning in those areas and those businesses will be torn down and condo's put up well before the Viaduct construction will be completed.

- The Stranger has conveniently forgotten that the battery street tunnel (99 South) leads onto the surface option, as doe the west Seattle Bridge and 99 North, as well as the city streets. So in your graphic, please include bumper to bumper traffic.

-As arealistic touch, please include 4 times as many buses, and have at least 2 buses blocking intersections as they tried to make it through yellow lights.

-please include a graphic of at least one protest going on blocking traffic as well.

- As the property values are going to skyrocket on all real estate around this area. Please remove all graphics of women pushing baby carriages. Young families will not be able to afford to live in this area.

- Do not include and graphics of lightrail on this corridor, it will never happen as that would include multi-tasking on a goverment level.

- Do not include the fantasy stop lights and intersections, again, this will not happen. It would be easier for you to just do a screen capture of 15th by Magnolia or Aurora in Ballard and drop it into the graphic.

- as a signature touch, please include a graphic of Dan Savage, on his knees licking a shops door knob. You'll have to ask your boss his own resons but I am sure this will happen.

Posted by interesting | March 25, 2007 2:04 PM

@2 : That's some really good food for thought there. Are you replying to a Slog post about the Viaduct?

Posted by laterite | March 25, 2007 3:06 PM

Agree with your points there Josh. The equally interesting issue with this case goes to personal liability. The principal is being sued personally, and is set to lose a lot (if not everything). Educators don't make much money as it is, and if they're personally on the hook over free speech rights, it will cause problems in the legal and school worlds (Just think what kind of dampening effect will happen with regards to keeping peace with students, etc).

I think the kid is right in this case, and think the supremes will find for him. I also think that they'll somehow restrict the damages portion and try to limit the liability. The guy is not a "perfect" plaintiff- he's been busted for selling pot in college and so some of the more conservative justices may grab a hold of that.

It's interesting as well to see where the lines being drawn are. This decision will break quite differently from the usual type of split because of the issue.

Posted by Dave Coffman | March 25, 2007 4:30 PM

You should be really good to start criticizing others as missing the point, being dumb etc., but you are not. In this instance you lecture the Times but then conflate the public with journalists and misread the case law.

You might consider tempering your act with some humility and perspective, but in this country you are free to make an ass of yourself. Bong hits for Josh.

Posted by He's really not Walter Cronkite | March 25, 2007 5:10 PM

I never take the Stranger seriously on matters related to politics. Was it not Josh that posted that the Sonics owners gave financial support to groups that are against gay marriage and how this was bad. THEN this past week he went to a Sonics game? (He posted a picture from the game and talked about going)

Oddly, he never explained how much of his ticket sale was used to prevent people from getting married or adopting kids or even just being able to keep their jobs without being fired for being gay. I wonder if Dan S. talked to him about it.

Posted by Andrew | March 25, 2007 7:18 PM

Wow - it's nice to know that we're not supposed to lead lives separate from our jobs! The next time I see a Stranger writer not investigating or reporting, I'll kick them in the ass and let them know what for!

Posted by Soupytwist | March 25, 2007 7:48 PM

Uh #7, Josh DID go to a Sonics Game after bitching that the owners gave money go a bunch of homophobic groups. So yeah, he is a hypocrite

Posted by yo yo | March 25, 2007 7:57 PM

As the editor-in-chief for a small college paper, I totally agree with Josh's analysis.

Except for one thing... the advisor seems to serve less as the editor-in-chief and more as, well, a man who really does nothing. We are in charge of everything, our advisor really doesn't help us in any way, shape or form. We are in charge of pretty much everything other than money.

The teacher doesn't do the same things the editor-in-chief of a commerical paper does (check for libel etc.) I do. And as for the grades, most of my staff isn't even enrolled in any classes he teaches.

Posted by Run... | March 25, 2007 10:02 PM

#2: The attitude you display in this post explains why we never get anything done for transportation in this town. Christ.

Heaven forbid someone steps out of of the party line; they get hammered down by this shrill, bullying, cry for inaction.

Posted by Know-it-all | March 25, 2007 10:25 PM


Good point.

I should I have been clearer. I was talking about h.s. papers. I don't think the critics of the Tinker standard are focused on college papers as much as they are on h.s. papers.

And @ 5,

Looks like I've got the case history right.

Posted by Josh Feit | March 26, 2007 12:43 AM

So high school students can learn about the Constitution, but better not practice it in schools. What a great lesson in democracy!
Fuck the Times (and Bethlen or whoever the asshole is)
They may think the Bill of Rights does not apply in schools, but students will see to it that it does.
I am certain it would just warm ther cocccles of their little hearts if students held a yellow ribbon type rah rah for the war meeting. They will hold end the war meetings if we choose to do so. My little sister is in fact organizing via the net a peace group in her school. They just arrange the meeting via email and hold the meeting in the cafeteria. I hope the ACLU steps in so that these meetings can be publically announced.
The Times seems to cite the Constitution when it meets their agenda and cannot appreciate that it applies to all citizens of all ages.
IF the Bethlen and company had their way dissent itself would be up for question. In the old days they actually had influnce and could control the vibe in this city, now any number of publications and ideas can be accesed in seconds just like the Times can.
Those who oppose free speech for students are a bit late. They will not shut-up. If you don't like uppity students just remember that part of the Serenity Prayer about "accepting the things you cannot change.

Bong Hits for Jesus, I love it.

Posted by Larry | March 26, 2007 4:35 AM

Josh is calling out the EDITORIAL BOARD of the Seattle Times for making an argument that is based on incomplete facts. And he should, being that the Times is the most widely read paper in the area by far, and yet has an editorial staff that seems 100% beholden to its owner's financial wellbeing. (The Stranger, on the other hand, doesn't attempt to hide the fact that their editorial and news operations are one in the same. It's what makes it entertaining to read).

Posted by steve | March 26, 2007 6:21 AM


Hazelwood doesn't explicitly overturn Tinker. In Hazelwood, the Court ruled that student newspapers aren't a "public forum for student expression," and that therefore Tinker doesn't apply.

You can argue (as I would) that their reasoning in Hazelwood was flawed, and that Tinker should apply to student publications, but that is a different argument.

Posted by david | March 26, 2007 9:57 PM

I interviewed the kid in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case as a student journalist at the University of Idaho.

He hardly gives a damn about the case, it turns out. He's in China right now teaching English. He dropped out of school for now. That's unfortunate too.

But when I look back on it - the argument that it's a non-sensical message that had nothing to do with drugs is a flat out lie. And a stupid one. It's obviously what it means.

Luckily the lower courts decided to take the reference to Bong Hits 4 Jesus as a drug-related message anyway for the sake of the argument.

Posted by Sam | March 27, 2007 12:07 AM

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