Sunday, December 30, 2007

DH: New State Law Protects High School Journalism Programs From Censorship

I'd heard this was coming down the pike, but I'd not paid close enough attention to get the details. From the story, it sounds like the new law is going in effect around the first of the year, with school boards changing their policies to match some time in the upcoming year. (On the other hand, the text of the law makes it sound like it went into effect at the beginning of the 2007-2008 academic year.)

I think this is a good development. I've never seen a conflict over censorship in a high school up close, but I've heard enough horror stories to think this is necessary.

As usual, there were some specifics from the article on which I wanted to comment.

OSBA spokeswoman Shannon Priem, whose organization opposed the bill, said the school board association likely will recommend districts put disclaimers on student-produced media.

The disclaimers will say to parents and others, “Don’t blame us for things you disagree with,” Priem said. “Realize we couldn’t do anything about it.”

This is stretching the truth - the law (go here for the text) is pretty clear that the usual rules apply: No inciting others to riot, no libelous statements, no violations of the law, etc. Within those constraints - which have been around for a long time - students are free to print what they want. Furthermore, "nothing" implies the only thing school administrations could have done would have been to censor the paper. Did Priem ever consider suggesting that administrators and school boards actually work with newspapers instead of defaulting to an "us vs. them" position? Apparently not.

Sadly, that is not the only gaffe from the OSBA:

OSBA objected to the bill in part because most school districts are involved in the production of student media, either by paying staff members’ salaries or funding the publications outright.

“The thing is, this is not a newspaper,” Priem said. “This is money that’s being funded by us, the taxpayer. ... It’s a tax-supported program.”

This is interesting - one hopes it's simply a poor choice of words on the part of Priem. Not a newspaper? Try telling that to the students who produce it. That line is certainly not going to endear her (or the OSBA) to students working in publications all over the state.

Furthermore, the implication here is that newspapers have to be funded with private money (like advertising, which many HS newspapers use to cover part of their expenses) to count, which makes no sense whatsoever. Good media theory says that the act of journalism is what makes one a journalist. By extension, I would think the same holds true of a newspaper: Does it fulfill the commonly understood functions of a newspaper? If yes, then it's almost certainly a newspaper.

OSU's Frank Ragulsky says something pretty smart:

Frank Ragulsky, director of student media at Oregon State University, said the law better defines the role schools ought to play.

“I think what it does is it places the educational part on the school, which is to inform students that they can’t be irresponsible,” he said.

“And I think it makes clear for administrators, principals, school districts and advisers the roles that they have in helping students learn their rights and responsibilities.”

Placing Ragulsky's comment (a comment I am not touching with a ten foot pole given the Baro's recent history of avoiding any and all responsibility for their actions) next to Priem's further makes Priem look the fool - Ragulsky is pushing for schools to teach responsibility. How could Priem or the OSBA possibly oppose that, you ask?

My conclusion? Teaching students to be responsible means giving them the power to fuck up, sometimes in monumental ways. There's no avoiding that - nor should there be. If the school administrations have any responsibility, it's to ameliorate the damage that occurs when students do make mistakes, and to - as Ragulsky suggests - help students learn about rights and responsibilities.

Mistakes can be fantastic opportunities for learning. Why does the OSBA sound so nervous about this?

Note: The Student Press Law Center sounds like a great resource. Check it out.


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