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Seattle School District seeks to remove forum policy for prior review


Even though its current open forum policy helped it avoid a lawsuit earlier this year, the Seattle School District seems determined to change course and install prior review, making the adviser responsible for all content and the administrators able to review at will.

A decision earlier this year in the Sisley v Seattle School District case hinged on the school’s stand on recognizing student media as forums for student expression and without prior review. The court, in its ruling, stated, ” As a matter of law, plaintiffs are unable to prove that, consistent with the First Amendment, the [district] should have censored the student’s speech.”

Now, according to a report from NPR station KUOW in Seattle, “The Seattle School Board is considering a rule change that would affect student newspapers. For the first time, the district would let principals review a student paper before it’s published. The district proposes the change, even after it won a lawsuit this summer because its students have freedom of the press.”

According to KUOW, the Seattle district used a freedom of the press argument to win in the Sisley decision in addition to the truth argument of the student article. KUOW reports new standards, part of a system-wide overhaul, would call for prior review and give principals broad powers of control, including determining what is “inappropriate” and what is “disruptive.” The board will decide on the policy change December 7.

Washington Journalism Education Association’s Fern Valentine, who had seen the proposed policy, said in an email it clearly puts the adviser in charge of content supervision and gives administrators prior review. The policy also uses other language like not publishing material “inappropriate for the maturity level of the students” and criticism of school officials that could lead to substantial disruption of the school.

KUOW quoted SPLC consultant Mike Hiestand that such a change would make the district liable for content.

“The minute that you open the door and say that a principal has that authority,” Hiestand told the station, “as a plaintiff’s attorney, you know, I start to salivate.”

Kathy Schrier, Executive Director for the Washington Journalism Education Association, said the potential move sets the stage for censorship of student expression

“WJEA is dismayed to see that this deeply flawed cookie cutter policy is endorsed by the Washington State School Directors Association,” Schrier said, “and worse, that it is being considered for adoption in the Seattle School District. This proposed policy removes responsibility for content from student editors and sets the stage for administrative censorship.”

Schrier also noted  Seattle has long had an excellent, clearly worded policy that set a high standard for student accountability with the expectation students would follow the law.

“The new policy, if adopted,” she said, “will create a chilling effect on scholastic journalism in Seattle schools, as has happened in other districts where this policy has been established. WJEA will fight the adoption of Policy 3220 by the Seattle School Board.”

WJEA president Vince DeMiero said the student publication policies under consideration by the Seattle School District are inconsistent with federal and state law, state code and best educational practices.

“They are in stark contrast to the wonderful policy that has served the district, educators and students so well for at least the past 20 years,” DeMiero said. “Policy 3220 continues to be pushed by the Washington State School Directors’ Association even though it is inconsistent with federal and state law, state code and best educational practice.

DeMiero said the policy is inconsistent with WSSDA’s own stated mission to “support public school directors’ efforts to improve student learning.”

“Policy 3220,” he said, “does nothing to improve teaching or learning in Seattle or anywhere else.”

John Hamer, President and Executive Director of Washington News Council, spoke to the value of students making decisions to learn critical thinking.

“Student journalists should have the freedom to express themselves and cover their school communities just as professional and citizen journalists do,” Hamer said of his personal views. “The more responsibility they are given, the more careful and ethical they will be. Many student journalists nationwide have already taken our (Washington News Council) ‘TAO of Journalism’ pledge to be Transparent, Accountable and Open. That’s a far better approach than prior review and administrative censorship.”

JEA has long opposed and condemned prior review as an tool without legitimate educational value, as well as a legally questionable practice. We continue to do so in this and other incidents.

Watch for more information on this situation.

For more information on the situation, go to KUOW radio

For background on events earlier this year and lessons about the decision, including the importance of the Sisley decision, go here.

For additional information on censorship research and fighting prior review, go here and here.

For JEA’s position on prior review and more on questioning it, go here.





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