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What you don’t know COULD hurt you


by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE

Recent applications for the First Amendment Press Freedom Award revealed some knowledge gaps. Perhaps it’s not surprising that school principals couldn’t define unprotected speech on the forms each school submitted. So often media advisers and student publication staff members have to do a little educating of their administrators.

But a sizable number of advisers and student editors, who also had to respond to the same question, didn’t know the answer either….

The problem cuts two ways. First, some answers on the applications were clearly protected speech. They weren’t from that fairly limited list of items that can be legally blocked or withheld. Answers included “something that makes the school look bad,” which may upset a principal but is clearly not speech for which the government could punish you.

Some answered unprotected speech included anything that would hurt someone’s feelings. Granted, that may not be something you want to do, but media aren’t legally forbidden from doing so, and at times, when someone has broken the law, reporting it MAY hurt some feelings, but the public may want and need to know.

Other answers SHOULD have been included but weren’t — and unaware publication staffs make them often. Misunderstanding copyright is pretty common and could cause real legal hassles. Chances are good you can’t just download that photo to go along with your story about ISIS. There’s a photographer who took it, and she or her employer owns it.

Thus it’s time for a little short course on legally unprotected speech. According to the fourth edition of Law of the Student Press, You could get in trouble if you print any of these:

  • obscenity (note this is not the same as profanity)
  • defamation (libel and slander)
  • expression that is intended and likely to incite imminent lawless action (starting a riot)
  • fighting words (personally abusive language targeting one person to get a violent reaction)
  • unwarranted invasion of privacy (but that can’t happen in a public place where there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy)
  • deceptive or misleading ads or those for illegal products and services
  • clear and imminent threats to national security (unlikely in a high school publication….)
  • copyright violations (highly likely in many high school publications)
  • expression on school grounds that causes a material and substantial disruption (not just animated conversation), is indecent or vulgar, or advocates illegal drug use.

Here are some resources to help teach what these do and do NOT mean:

The Scholastic Press Rights Committee blog has a number of helpful materials. Use the search bar to find others:

If you’re a JEA member, the Law and Ethics curriculum provides correlation to Common Core State Standards, complete lesson plans and student handouts.

The Student Press Law Center offers excellent PowerPoints with presenter notes on many of these areas.

And once we advisers are educated, we can work on passing that knowledge along to our principals.


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