Ind. student journalists caught up in legal snare

Sunday, May 3, 2009

There is criminal law and there is civil law, there’s the long-running TV show “Law and Order,” and then there is the “law of unintended consequences.”

Let’s hope that Indiana legislators will move soon to correct a bad case of the presumably unintended kind — one that unfairly and unnecessarily hinders student journalists, and which violates the spirit, if not also the letter, of First Amendment law.

Hoosier State Press Association counsel Stephen Key, writing in the April 23 edition of Indiana Publisher magazine, recounts how a 2008 state law was intended to preclude school boards from spending tax money to influence voters on building referendums.

In a recent twist, Key reports, administrators — with regret — have told student journalists at the Mooresville High School newspaper, The Pulse, that the law means students cannot report in any fashion beyond a basic listing about a May 19 proposal to fund a new school and renovate an older building.

Key says the state press association believes no one intended to penalize the student press. But lawyers for the school district warned of possible criminal charges against school officials if students used school-owned equipment to report on the referendum and also of potential lawsuits challenging the outcome of the vote based on such “violations.”

The law would not preclude students from speaking out in more personal way, such as wearing T-shirts with slogans, armbands, buttons or through similar “non-disruptive” means. Administrators correctly note that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1969 (in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist.) that such student — or teacher, for that matter — expressions of opinion were protected speech. And in an admirable show of support from professional journalists, The Mooresville/Decatur Times has invited the high school newspaper staff to write about the referendum for the town’s newspaper.

Preventing public employees from using taxpayer funds or resources to — depending on your point of view — “educate” or “lobby” voters on public spending ought not to prevent journalists who are students from reporting on those matters of public interest.

No doubt, there are those who would raise the idea that teachers or advisers or administrators would twist such coverage for their own purposes. But that’s not going to happen at schools where student-run newspapers have a tradition of news coverage. As for those places without such a tradition, what better place to set out the good journalistic goal of reporting all sides of real issues?

The legal advice provided to the Mooresville school officials properly charts a most-conservative approach. But from a First Amendment view, it’s silly to apply such a restriction to journalists who happen to be students.

One of the great things about journalism is that it takes place in public. Properly practiced in the current example, the outcome is a school community — and the larger community, too — that is better informed about the facts of the referendum, and perhaps also about student views on the spending. Sure, such an approach could be abused. But a poor report, or one slanted in one direction, is in the open for opponents to correct, criticize and counter.

Of course no law prevents students from using e-mail, text or instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter and a host of other such technologies to talk about this referendum or other school issues off campus. In that case, the information exchange is largely out-of-sight from any professionally trained journalism adviser or other experts, and rife with the opportunity for rumors and misinformation.

A far better tactic for all concerned is simply to warn adults to keep their hands off and let the student reporters and editors both explore an important issue in detail and put into practice the reportorial and editing skills involved in producing such a news report. Students will experience either praise for a job well done or criticism from those who object to their coverage.

Such an engaged but not overbearing approach is worth adopting toward journalism as produced by students in general — and not just in Indiana.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail: