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Learning about the First Amendment, or not

by Chris Lowrance

As reported in the Raleigh News and Observer on June 7, the principal of a middle school in Chapel Hill confiscated copies of the Cyclone Scoop, a student newspaper published by the school’s journalism class and advised by Pulitzer Prize-nominated UNC Chapel Hill professor Chris Roush.

Valerie Reinhart, principal of Smith Middle School, claimed that two of the paper’s stories ‘— one about a student’s punishment for kissing his girlfriend in a hallway, the other about an assault on a school bus ‘— violated the school’s confidentiality policy by giving the names of students involved.

She did eventually release the paper ‘— with the bus story erased. She also fired Roush, who advised the Cyclone Scoop on a volunteer basis because his kid goes to the school, and who’s department at UNC Chapel Hill printed the paper free-of-charge.

‘“We need to be sure that the people involved with the publication of the paper are very aware of the rules for public school officials,’” Reinhart said.

That’s interesting, considering no one involved in either story was a public school official. Even if you count Roush’s volunteer position as adviser, he’s not the one who gathered and published the information. Student reporters did. Which, you know, is the job of a reporter. Even a prepubescent one.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in Owasso School District v. Falvo that FERPA, the federal law barring the release of confidential student records, doesn’t apply to students. While a school administrator can’t give out the details of an academic or disciplinary record, a student who knows the information can.

As to who will print the paper now that the highly-recognized journalism professor who did it for free has been fired, Reinhart has a plan. According to the News and Observer, she wants to keep the Scoop ‘“in-house.’” That will insure she can review every issue before allowing it to be published.

What a great lesson for the students of Smith Middle: The First Amendment stops at the flagpole out front, kids.

Unfortunately it’s a lesson being taught at schools across the nation. While Reinhart doesn’t have the legal high ground on the whole ‘“student reporters can’t report on students’” thing, a 1988 Supreme Court ruling does give her the green light to delete stories on a whim.

In Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, the highest court in the land gave middle and high schools the power to censor anything in a school-sponsored paper falling into such firm, objective categories as ‘“poorly written,’” ‘“biased’” or ‘“inconsistent with the shared values of a civilization.’”

Who decides what’s inconsistent with the shared values of a civilization? The very-same school administrators whom student papers report on, obviously.

Ironically, that’s inconsistent with the shared values of this civilization, namely every value that makes the fourth estate a vital part of any functional democracy. But thus far the decision stands. Hazelwood teaches children that all news should be good news and bad news will be deleted by those in power. They learn the lesson well.

While working part-time at YES! Weekly, I also continue to serve as executive editor of UNCG’s student newspaper, the Carolinian. The lessons I’ve learned in my three years there have been invaluable, thanks largely to ethics and integrity of those who came before me. I’ve done my best to pass those lessons on, not just to our staff but to those we report on and those who read us.

Hazelwood makes that job a lot harder. I could list anecdotes of people failing to understand the role, goals and ethical boundaries of journalism all day, but the bottom line is these lessons should have been taught in high school. College papers and journalism programs are left picking up the slack.

For as long as we’re allowed to.

Last year, the 7th Circuit Court ruled in Hosty v. Carter that the rules of Hazlewood apply to college papers. School officials in the Midwest now have almost limitless power to censor college media. Similar cases are sure to follow, and it’s very unclear what the final verdict will be, if ever there is one.

Again, I’m not sure what civilization this is supposed to be consistent with. Ancient Draconia, perhaps.

Experience has taught me those with power will use it. If rulings like Hosty hold up across the nation, papers like the Carolinian will cease to exist. They’ll be little more that publicity pamphlets for the administrations that control them.

Student media matters. It’s about more than reporting on baseball games and student government results. It’s about teaching students how the free press works and why it’s vital. The result is a smarter, better-informed public ‘— the key to a working democracy.

If no one’s learning it in high school, and those that go to college aren’t able to learn it there, what’s left?

To comment on this column, email Chris Lowrance at chris@yesweekly.com

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