Miami schools consider new student-press guidelines

Monday, May 18, 1998

For nearly two decades, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has enjoyed a reputation as one of the strongest advocates of the student press.

Support for student-press freedoms was so strong that when the pivotal Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier went before the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago, the system's school board filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the students who claimed their work had been censored.

But student-press experts say they fear a proposal to draft new guidelines — rules that would grant principals the right to censor articles — would cut deeply into the press rights Miami students have long enjoyed.

“It's very important that we keep the freedom of the press that's been in Miami and Dade County all along,” said Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, associate dean of journalism at Florida International University and president-elect for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. “We need to keep it going.”

According to a proposal under review by the Miami-Dade County School Board, principals would have the final say on student publications but couldn't change anything without a “specific educational purpose,” said Russ Wheatley, who heads the redrafting effort.

“You just can't go in there with a red pencil and mark through things just because you don't like it personally,” Wheatley said. “But teachers, as well as students, need to understand the responsibility lies with the principal.”

The revised guidelines were met with disappointment by some students.

“I would hate for a well-written story to be kept back because the principal feels it will tarnish the school,” said Kanika Frazier, a front-page editor of the Carol City High School newspaper.

The new rules are being prepared at the request of Superintendent Roger Cuevas, three months after nine Killian High School students were arrested and suspended after publication of a booklet filled with racist comments, depictions of rape and threats against their principal. The pamphlet was not school-sanctioned.

“What does this do? It punishes the good kids,” said Shirley Yaskin, adviser to Palmetto High School's paper. “It punishes the journalism students who are interested in really helping change in their school.”

Under the proposal, teacher-advisers must bring to the attention of principals anything “they feel uncomfortable with or may cause controversy,” Wheatley said. Principals also would be instructed to consult school district attorneys over controversial material.

If Cuevas approves the proposed guidelines, they will go to the board for consideration in July.

“The saddest thing is this thing seems to be prompted by non-school sponsored expression,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. “The school has very limited control of that. Basically they are changing standards for school-sponsored speech because of things students have done in non-sponsored events.

“And it doesn't make sense,” Goodman said. “It's backwards.”

The school system currently follows an 18-year policy of allowing students full First Amendment rights to publish. It remained a system-wide policy even after the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood that school officials can censor school-sponsored student expression if they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

Goodman said the school board attempted to change the policy in the early 1990s, but a determined, articulate group of student journalists approached the board, urging members not to restrict students' press rights.

“The school board realized this would be a grave mistake, so they didn't do it,” Goodman said. “Unfortunately, I think, the times have changed.”

Kopenhaver, a journalism educator who helped draft the original policy in 1980, said the school system should be proud of its students' work. She said the newspapers, yearbooks and magazines regularly win national awards.

“We set these guidelines almost two decades ago,” Kopenhaver said. “And they have served the system and students well. I hope they will long and hard before they consider changing them.”

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.