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Friday, November 4, 2011

Students Fight to Keep From Being Censored by School District, Principals

Posted by on Fri, Nov 4, 2011 at 5:02 PM

This post has been updated—the board will be voting on this rule change on December 7, not November 16 as originally reported.

On December 7, the Seattle School Board will vote to to adopt a broad new “freedom of expression” rule change that would not only give school officials sweeping new authority to determine what is, and isn't, appropriate for student newspapers, radio, and television stations—it would also give high school principals the authority to review and widely censor student content, and outlaw material that might promote everything from student protests to "boisterous conduct".

"What we’re saying is, you do have the right to free speech but you can’t defame, you can’t libel," explains school Board member Harium Martin-Morris, who orchestrated the drafting of the new rule.

But the two-page-long rule change appears to go much further than that. Now, at least two journalism students at Ballard High School are posting flyers around Ballard and courting students and teachers at other Seattle public schools to raise awareness and block the change.

"If this rule passes, we wouldn't be able to criticize school policy—which we do a lot," says 17-year-old Kate Clark, Editor-in-Chief of the Ballard high school student newspaper, The Talisman. "It would be up to our principal to decide what we could and couldn't print. He could take away 80 percent of our content." Clark says she first heard about the change on November 3.

Specifically, the rule change would prohibit "Publications or oral speeches which criticize school officials or advocate violation of school rules may be prohibited when there is evidence which supports a forecast that a material and substantial disruption of school may develop." What kind of substantial disruption, you ask? "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 related form of activity."

In addition, school publications "must be free of content that: runs counter to the instructional program... advocates the violation of law or a school rule... or is inappropriate for the maturity level of the students."

The rule changes gives school principals the authority to "monitor student verbal and written expression" for these and other disturbing trends of free, critical thought.

Clark and her managing editor, 18-year-old Katie Kennedy, argue that the rule change muzzles students' ability to critically review their school and its policies and practices. For example: "Our last issue, we focused on the new, earlier start time policy [implemented by the school] and argued that maybe it shouldn’t be changed," explains Kennedy. "Next issue, we've got an article that debates skipping class versus being tardy to class. If I were to advise skipping class, we could be punished." Or, more likely, the article simply wouldn't run.

But Martin-Morris insists that the rule change was necessary because right now there are no district policies in place outlining students' rights to free speech and expression. "We had no policy in the district around freedom of expression—we had quite a hole, honestly," he says. "In this policy, what we were and are attempting to do, is define what is protected speech and what is not."

Oddly, it appears that such a policy is already in place. From the Seattle Public School's Student Rights and Responsibilities:

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 or editors of the publication. They are not allowed to make personal attacks or publish libelous or obscene material.

Martin-Morris says he's received no negative feedback about the proposed rule change and he believes he has the votes to pass it at the November 16 school board meeting "unless [another board member] decides to pull it out and rework it."

Clark and Kennedy hope their public campaign will pressure the school board to do just that. "Our biggest issue is, if they don’t give us responsibility as journalists, to practice responsible journalism and ethics, how are we supposed to learn to be responsible?" Clark says.


Comments (46) RSS

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yet another lesson in american democracy for students. speech is free, as long as the authorities agree w/ the content.
Posted by philosophy school dropout on November 4, 2011 at 5:06 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 2
Great. Just what we need - yet another thread where a bunch of non-lawyers sit around spouting platitudes about what they think "freedom of speech" means.

Hint: In reality, it means, in this particular case, that the school administration is actually being more generous with these students than they're required by law to be.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 4, 2011 at 5:16 PM · Report this
"Widespread shouting"!? OMG the kids are out of control!
Posted by pox on November 4, 2011 at 5:29 PM · Report this
michaelp 4
Isn't the Stranger glad they've endorsed Martin-Morris?
Posted by michaelp on November 4, 2011 at 5:29 PM · Report this
@2 i hope that comforts you.
Posted by philosophy school dropout on November 4, 2011 at 5:31 PM · Report this
the talisman sucks everyone knows that The Garfield Messenger is the superior newspaper
Posted by Skit on November 4, 2011 at 5:36 PM · Report this
Keister Button 7
@4 That's what's missing from the paragraph:
"What we’re saying is, you do have the right to free speech but you can’t defame, you can’t libel," explains school Board member Harium Martin-Morris, endorsed by The Stranger Election Control Board and who orchestrated the drafting of the new rule.

Four members of the SECB have already had their ballots received by King County Elections, but there could be time for the remaining four to change their minds...
Posted by Keister Button on November 4, 2011 at 5:38 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 8
@5: Whatever that's supposed to mean.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 4, 2011 at 5:51 PM · Report this
@8 PSD likes to think of himself as the lone voice in the wilderness warning his fellow Americans that their country is slipping inexorably into totalitarianism. It makes him feel important.
Posted by Ken Mehlman on November 4, 2011 at 5:57 PM · Report this
Speech is free, true. However, minors are not afforded the full freedoms and should not be. Unless they become emancipated legally, they are still minors. Society has determined that minors are not ready to exercise their full rights of a free society. On the converse side, minors cannot be held to contracts. So, if you want minors to enjoy all freedoms as an adult, then let them start paying bills and being held liable for any obligations they may assume.
Posted by rshoff on November 4, 2011 at 6:24 PM · Report this
I was the editor of the talisman about six or seven years ago, and when I was there I would have killed for something like this to happen. I recall being jealous of some eastside (mercer island?) high school who's principal tried to pull something like this. Either you make a stand and get respect for it, or go down fighting for what you believe in. Either way, it's more relevant than anything that gets printed in a high school paper.
Posted by Quetzal on November 4, 2011 at 6:44 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 12
Editor of the damned paper, and still you can't speak English. I'd be ashamed.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 4, 2011 at 6:53 PM · Report this
Normally public high school publications would be curtailed by the Hazelwood standard (…) which states that censorship would be permitted so long as there is a “legitimate pedagogical [educational] concern” to justify the censorship. Sections of the proposed rules reach beyond this standard but it doesn't even matter because in Washington students are accorded freedom of speech and freedom of the press through WAC 392-40-215. This means student speech is protected speech just as with any adult's speech and should therefore not be subject to administrative censorship. The proposed rules clearly curtail the rights guaranteed to students through the WAC.
Posted by Orville Redenbacher on November 4, 2011 at 7:03 PM · Report this
Posted by Orville Redenbacher on November 4, 2011 at 7:08 PM · Report this
Keister Button 15
Updated: Teresa Wippel tells Phyllis Fletcher the Board is scheduled to consider and possibly act on this change on December 7.
Posted by Keister Button on November 4, 2011 at 7:22 PM · Report this
@10, I think that's nonsense. By your reasoning, a kid could be prevented from expressing his or her opinion anywhere. Children could be searched without a warrant. Children could be forced to testify against themselves. It's just nonsense.
Posted by LJM on November 4, 2011 at 7:43 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 17
Hello? Children can be searched without a warrant. And the testifying thing is kinda up for grabs too.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 4, 2011 at 7:52 PM · Report this
Let them write what they like, just have their parents sign waivers making them liable for any lawsuits and costs from what the little buggers publish.
Posted by U want freedom, then accept the responsibility of it on November 4, 2011 at 8:23 PM · Report this
@2 You're right. And that's a good thing. Hence why people don't think they can change it. There is a difference between what is meant legally by the right to free speech and what people might personally think is the right to free speech. We need not agree with the Court, nor must we stick with their minimums.
Posted by giffy on November 4, 2011 at 9:32 PM · Report this
@17, "warrant" was the wrong word. They can't be searched without reason. Except at school, where they can also be censored as they're learning first hand about arbitrary authoritarianism.

My point was that there's nothing in the Bill of Rights which allows the government to treat kids differently than adult citizens. Parents have special rights over their children, but the government doesn't (in theory, if not practice).
Posted by LJM on November 4, 2011 at 9:36 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 21
Yah. But you know, here's where everybody fucks up: The constitution isn't a two-page document. It's a two-page document and the several volumes of Supreme Court decisions interpreting it. That's the "living constitution" most liberals think is the be-all and end-all. Unfortunately, for most of them, it hasn't exactly been interpreted the way they'd like lately.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 4, 2011 at 10:21 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 22
And BTW, I don't always agree with the Supremes' thinking either. Although I do mostly agree (mostly) with their thinking on Citizens United, which distinguishes me from just about everyone on Slog right there. I do believe that their interpretations of the Commerce Clause, eminent domain, and some parts of the fifth amendment have bordered on sheer craziness, though.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 4, 2011 at 10:32 PM · Report this
Alicia 23
I think it's the possible suppression of criticism aimed at the school that disturbs me the most.
Posted by Alicia on November 4, 2011 at 10:39 PM · Report this
@22, you and I and the ACLU agree with the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United.

But I disagree that the Constitution includes the courts' interpretations of it, for precisely the insane rulings you list, along with the fact that the Supreme Court has contradicted itself so many times over the decades. The Constitution is one thing and the Supreme Court's opinions of it are another thing. But you're right in that the SC defines how the Constitution will work (or won't) until the next bunch of fancy-pants judges take a whack at it.
Posted by LJM on November 4, 2011 at 11:38 PM · Report this
@5 We're all on the same team here, chances are if this is passed little, if anything, will change at the Talisman because our advising staff is so nonchalant. Its other schools we're fighting for because we all have the right under the Constitution to speak our mind. If you think you're better than us then stand up and help spread the word, it doesn't matter who's "better" if we're all censored.
Posted by Name472 on November 5, 2011 at 7:10 AM · Report this
As @13 said, if there is an underlying educational reason to suppress student speech, then the administration of a school may do so (such as students rallying others to skip school or ditch class). The real debate centers on when an administrator or faculty member curtails speech that does not affect the learning environment...and this has to be addressed on a case by case basis.
Posted by Approaching 40 in LA on November 5, 2011 at 8:18 AM · Report this
NotSean 27
Aren't policy changes/crackdowns, such as this one, driven by some recent, undesired, incident?

What was it here?
Posted by NotSean on November 5, 2011 at 9:18 AM · Report this
hans millionaire 28
b#ng H!ts for Je$us
Posted by hans millionaire on November 5, 2011 at 9:33 AM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 29
Shut the fuck up, hans.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 5, 2011 at 10:19 AM · Report this
This is complete nonsense AND will open the district up to lawsuits. If they pass this and something gets by a student advisor/principal, then this policy MAKES the district responsible. And that means being sued.

Some of this may come from the Roosevelt student newspaper criticizing the infamous landlords, the Sisley brothers, calling them "slumlords." The Sisleys filed a lawsuit and it was dismissed because it was the students making the statements and NOT the district.

I think Director Martin-Morris is about to receive some "negative feedback" and he better listen. Maybe it will come sooner like next Tuesday and hopefully it won't be his call any longer.

Vote Buetow.
Posted by westello on November 5, 2011 at 10:20 AM · Report this
prompt 31
What a perfect example of how you can do whatever the fuck you want to the people who can't vote.
Posted by prompt on November 5, 2011 at 12:21 PM · Report this
I see that it is Fifty-Two-Eighty's responsibility to harass everybody he disagrees with in this thread, so get ready to hammer out a rude response. I was the head editor of the talisman in the 2008-2009 school year. During my time on the paper, our principal did not exercise any form of prior review, and I cannot remember a single occasion where we published something about school policy that was erroneous or inflammatory. The administration occasionally disagreed with our opinions about dress code or dance policy, but disagreements could be voiced through letters to the editor, as should be expected of any publication. The Talisman served as a valuable forum for school-wide debate, and this value is now at stake. While this new policy would prevent hypothetical grotesque misuses of the newspaper as a soapbox for "boisterous conduct", any responsible head editor or adviser would prevent this. Giving school administrations the right to remove anything they do not agree with would castrate the ability of a student newspaper to actually expose administration mistakes or wrong-doing. What is the point of having a school newspaper if students can't even disagree with school policy? A wad of paper with high school sports coverage and amateur cartoonists? You may as well get rid of school publications entirely if you plan to peddle frivolity in lieu of actual reporting.
Posted by jay98107 on November 5, 2011 at 12:57 PM · Report this
Jay98107, I don't know you but I'm proud to teach at the school where you obviously learned a lot.

I'm glad I procrastinated mailing my ballot until after reading this. I was considering voting for (Stranger endorsed) Martin-Morris, but not anymore.

Also, he can no longer honestly say he hasn't heard any negative feedback. Here's his email:
Posted by zoostahl on November 5, 2011 at 1:29 PM · Report this
Hi. I'm Phyllis from KUOW. I introduced a date error into coverage and discussion of this proposed policy. The board is scheduled to take this up on December 7th. (Not November 16, as I reported.) Thank you, Teresa Wippel from the District, for the correction.
Posted by kuowphyl on November 5, 2011 at 2:00 PM · Report this
@15: Thanks, "Keister Button!" You beat me to it.
Posted by kuowphyl on November 5, 2011 at 2:15 PM · Report this
If student freedom of speech that encourages "widespread shouting or boisterous conduct" will be suppressed, then I think it is the cheerleaders who should be most concerned. Isn't that their whole thing - to encourage widespread shouting and boisterous conduct?
Posted by Charlie Mas on November 5, 2011 at 3:30 PM · Report this
And Harium Martin-Morris has been a total loss on the school board. Vote Buetow.
Posted by Charlie Mas on November 5, 2011 at 3:31 PM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 38
Nope, no rude response, @32. That was actually well-written. Maybe you learned something after all.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on November 5, 2011 at 3:46 PM · Report this
KittenKoder 39
So now highschools will be just like universities ... grand.
Posted by KittenKoder on November 5, 2011 at 4:19 PM · Report this
Actually you can write the entire School Board at
Posted by westello on November 5, 2011 at 8:31 PM · Report this
This reminds me a bit of what's going on up here at Western Washington University:…
Posted by GMC on November 5, 2011 at 11:51 PM · Report this
svensken 42
I work for a school district and you guys have zero idea how they are. It's like a fucking dictatorship instead of a public service.
Posted by svensken on November 5, 2011 at 11:52 PM · Report this
WOWZERS... ""school publications "must be free of content that: runs counter to the instructional program... ""

So students don't write about "instructional programs like k-12 math" that do not do the job. Please don't write about the WA Adoption of the "Common Core State Standards" that will remove $165 million from local school district funds to spend on products, services, and administrative salaries unlikely to benefit you.…

Martin-Morris has an odd view of free speech. I guess when elected officials wish to silence opposition to their decisions that is just fine.

Posted by WestSeattleDan on November 6, 2011 at 5:15 AM · Report this
The case at Western is a bit different than this. The SPSD case is about prior review, with the administration potentially looking over the paper BEFORE it is printed and removing things that they don't like. At Western they're talking about removing damaging articles about people after college. The supposed article in question at WWU is about a girl who was a "self-proclaimed slut" and is having a hard time finding a job now (just like everyone else) because that article turns up when employers search her name. Her claim is essentially that college isn't real life, and she shouldn't be punished even though she was over 18. Try telling people who got pregnant in college that it isn't "real life".
Posted by jay98107 on November 6, 2011 at 10:06 AM · Report this
Rev.Smith 45
@10 ; you mean, like employment contracts, corporate NDAs, and paying worker's comp and federal income taxes that are withdrawn (and spent) without representation? Like the sales tax they aren't exempt from, at any age? Like the selective service they have to register for at the same time they're eligible for voting (a bit late to do anything about it)? Those kinds of grown-up things? Any kid with a nonSE job is already beating your logic here.

Not to mention all the 18 and 19 year olds in high school... your logic would suggest that THEY get free speech but the kids who's parents didn't get knocked up as early in the schoolyear as their's did should suffer fewer civil rights.
Posted by Rev.Smith on November 8, 2011 at 1:20 AM · Report this
Rev.Smith 46
@26: OH NO truancy! As if senior skip days have never existed? =) This self-importance o nthe part of the school admin is shameful.
And students suggesting to others to ditch a day to join a worthwhile cause (let's pretend that might be something like the Occupy Seattle movement, but better/more compelling; or going to a PTA meeting to represent themselves) - THAT wouldn't be newsworthy to report?
A good school/administration would embrace these as learning opportunities and a time to explain good choices. BESIDES: press doesn't make people riot or skip school, PEOPLE'S CHOICES do.
I think curbing press curbs free speech and neither is a good idea for any age and it's an ESPECIALLY terrible example to set in a educational institution - the place charged with the responsibility for graduating capable adult citizens. These (advisor-led) kids learn that libel crosses the line, and so long as the bill of rights filter of "Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose" is applied, anything they do will be fine. After all, when was the last time the Seattle Times incited a riot?

@19 FTW and @2 was wrong on "the Law" - it (state level: see @14) protects student papers from these shenanigans so long as the paper isn't produced or distributed in a way that cuts in on instruction time (i.e. you gotta print it at home and distribute between classes; + anyone caught reading it during class can expect it to be taken away). This is hardly the first time a district in this area (or in this generation) has made this mistake.

@30 but they ARE slumlords*: it's not libel if it's true -
*aren't they? That's what I read somewhere...

@36: True! Though don't forget Glee, Drama, Chorus, Marching Band, ROTC and Shop class, Charlie. Anytime a school newspaper mentions any of those, a Principal fairy loses its wings.
@13/@26 it's a shame the WAC code books were removed from school libraries over the last few years then, isn't it? The kids are ACTIVELY discouraged from ever knowing the law that gives them their rights as students.
Posted by Rev.Smith on November 8, 2011 at 1:40 AM · Report this

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