Hawaii Board of Education considers publication policy

Monday, November 2, 1998

The Hawaii Board of Education this month plans to consider and possibly vote on a statewide policy that would require public elementary and secondary school newspapers, yearbooks and other publications to be free of racial slurs, obscenities and slanderous statements.

The policy, approved last month by a state board subcommittee, would allow teachers and principals to decide what students may publish. If approved by the full board, the policy would be the first state student-publication code in the nation.

“Of course, no one wants to encourage racist stories or offensive speech. But is it necessary to have this policy?” asked Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. “No other states have a policy like this on the books, and they seem to get along just fine.”

The proposed policy grew from a lawsuit filed last year against the Hawaii Department of Education by the families of two black high school students whose pictures appeared in their school yearbook above a caption they considered racist. State school officials settled the suit this summer.

In a separate incident last June, the department apologized for a picture in another yearbook, which showed a student wearing a Ku Klux Klan-like robe and hood.

Judy McCoy, a state education specialist who helped draft the proposed policy, said efforts at the school level have been inconsistent. The new guidelines, if the state school board approves them later this month, would require each school to draft its own publications code, detailing who would review the work before publication.

The guiding U.S. Supreme Court case on student press, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which was decided in 1988, allows school officials to suppress student publications if they have a compelling educational reason.

The original policy proposal mentioned student free speech, but board members changed it to allow students “the right to expression.”

“This is not a democracy,” said board member Kelly King. “We're trying to give kids some responsibility, but they're still minors.”

Goodman said the policy “is just incredibly troubling and probably unconstitutional. The fact is, students don't shed all of their First Amendment rights at the school door. Even though school officials have some authority to regulate school-sponsored media, in this situation they are creating a recipe for conflict.”

Goodman said that requiring school officials to examine student publications before they go to press means “a guarantee of censorship.”

“The question I would ask is: Are you looking to prepare students for life in a democratic society or … for life in China?” he said.

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.