Update on The Scout and legal accountability

10 Apr

Overland  High principal Leon Lundie issued a statement on April 4 that students  had misunderstood his simple concerns about an article and  misinterpreted his comments as a moratorium on future print publications  and censorship on an article that was simply “unbalanced.” <em>The Scout</em> is set to print the rest of the year without prior review. Although he  had removed the newspaper adviser after this “misunderstanding,” the  administration recently reinstated the adviser to “get through the  year.”

The  Overland High censorship controversy began when Lundie allegedly  decided to censor an article that was essentially an obituary. He  unintentionally initiated a new legal battle for student publications  and their rights. Apparently, Lundie cited the article as inaccurate and  unbalanced, but in his defense he said that he never explicitly told <em>The Scout</em> not to publish the article. In his decision to cut the article and subsequently discontinue <em>The Scout</em>,  a long-running and by all measures responsible student newspaper.  Students are pushing for a lawsuit on the basis that Lundie grossly  overstepped his boundaries.

When considering the First Amendment rights of student journalists, it is important to remember the Supreme Court case <em>Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier</em>. The principal of a high school that practiced prior review had cut articles about teen pregnancy and divorce, and the case had  made its way to the Supreme Court to decide whether the principal was  in his legal boundaries. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of  the administration, marking a distinct break from the previous two  decades, in which student journalists had enjoyed extensive First  Amendment rights. The decision held that student newspapers that have  not been established as public forums do not have the same privileges of  the First Amendment as do “independent student expression or forums for  student expression.” Overland High had begun a prior review system when Lundie became principal.

Like in many legal cases, at least in my opinion, the decision was not extremely lucid. Courts since <em>Hazelwood</em> have elaborated on the case’s significant limitations; no matter what  they believe or say, school officials do not have the right to  indiscriminately censor like principal Lundie did. The court case<em> Dean v. Utica</em> showed how a principal who disagreed with an article about complaints  about diesel fumes in the school district did not have the power to  enact wanton censorship. In fact, a school official may only stop  something from being published if the content is either unlawful by way  of libel, invasion of privacy or obscenity, or tremendously “disruptive”  to academic purposes. Any other article must be allowed to publish. And  the Overland High students should have had even more legal precedents  protecting their newspaper. Colorado has its own special law to protect  student journalists in the Colorado Student Free Expression Law, which  sets further standards before a school official can even begin to  consider censoring a school publication.

By definition,<em> The Scout</em>’s  memorial article did not meet any of the legal requirements needed  before considering censorship. Was the article libelous? No, every fact  in contention was checked and doubled checked. Was it an invasion of  privacy? No, the mother of the student who died strongly approved and  even encouraged the article. Was it obscene? Of course not. Was it  disruptive to the school environment? No, at least not until the censorship drama began. All in all, Lundie had absolutely no reason to question <em>The Scout</em>’s  article, and he handled the situation wrongly by discontinuing the  print publication altogether–he later denied stopping print newspapers,  attributing it to another misunderstanding. Even if the article was  “unbalanced” or badly written (and it wasn’t), a small journalistic  misdemeanor does not constitute disbanding a school newspaper.

The fate of the Overland High journalism program is still in jeopardy. There are vague plans to move <em>The Scout</em> entirely to online publication and new communication technologies.  There’s no guarantee the adviser will still have her position after May.  Whether Lundie was really misunderstood or was just retracting his  words in the face of legal action, no one can know for sure. What should  be remembered from this debacle is that when school officials move to  haphazardly restrict First Amendment rights and violate existing legal  precedents, organizations across the nation like JEA’s 45words  commission will be there to fight the decision every step of the way.

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