TANSELLE: Student media must be treated as part of curriculum

March 9, 2018

DEBATE QDo student journalists need additional free-press protections, as was proposed in House Bill 1016?


AHouse Bill 1016, introduced this session, generated intense discussion about the First Amendment rights of student journalists. Our courts have concluded that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, but they have also said those rights are not absolute in the school setting.

The courts have often had to balance the rights of school administrators to maintain an efficient school system with the rights of students to engage in free speech. To that end, the courts have concluded that, within the school setting, school officials may regulate student speech that is disruptive; is lewd, vulgar or profane; or that promotes the illegal use of drugs.

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that students’ free-speech rights could also be regulated when the speech occurs within the school newspaper. The court’s rationale centered on the fact that the newspaper was created in a classroom under the direction of a teacher and therefore was part of the curriculum approved by the school board. Because of this, the court concluded the school administrator had the right to regulate the content of the publication based on “legitimate, pedagogical concerns.”

The Indiana School Boards Association believes this standard strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of school administrators and the rights of students and remains a viable standard today. Adherence to these standards has resulted in the creation of many outstanding school newspapers.

More important, the ISBA believes decisions as to the content of a school-sponsored publication should remain within the authority of local school officials—both school boards and school administrators—who can judge whether the content is consistent with the curriculum and the standards of the community.

Courts have granted local school boards the authority to determine the content of the curriculum offered by a school corporation. Additionally, the Indiana General Assembly requires all curricula to be consistent with the academic standards established by the State Board of Education. To grant students in a journalism classroom freedom of the press and the right to author an article for the school newspaper that is inconsistent with the school’s curriculum gives these students greater rights than students in other classrooms.

Moreover, students have other avenues for the expression of their free-speech rights without interference or regulation by school administrators. They can write letters to the editor of the local newspaper. They have numerous social media outlets available to them.

Local school officials don’t seek the authority to regulate all speech expressed by students. But in publications that are funded by taxpayer dollars and bear the imprimatur of the school corporation, the ISBA believes the school administrator should have the right to regulate the content.

Even newspaper reporters must adhere to standards established by their editors. It seems reasonable to allow local school boards and school administrators to establish appropriate standards for students to follow in publications sponsored by the school corporation and to intervene when those standards are not met. For these reasons, ISBA opposed HB 1016.•

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Tanselle is general counsel at the Indiana School Boards Association. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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