Miami students plan rally for press rights

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

Journalism and drama students in the Miami-Dade County School District plan to hold a rally today to protest proposed rules that would allow administrators to exercise prior review over student publications and theatrical productions.

Organizers said they expect as many as 300 students to gather at 4:30 p.m. EDT outside the district administration building prior to a meeting of the school board. Fourteen students, teachers and press experts plan to speak against the proposed rules during an open forum at the meeting.

The school system currently follows an 18-year policy of allowing students full First Amendment rights to publish. Support for student-press freedoms has been so strong, the board filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of students in the pivotal 1988 Supreme Court case Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

Even though the court ruled in Hazelwood that school officials can censor school-sponsored student expression if they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so, the Miami-Dade County system retained its policy. In 1994, the board reaffirmed student-press rights by rejecting a new student-expression policy.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the Miami-Dade County school system enjoys a nationwide reputation as one of the best for student publications.

“It really is such a classic example of what student journalism can be,” Goodman said.

H.L. Hall, president of the Journalism Education Association, said students must continue to have the right to make their own decisions about style, structure and content.

“Allowing students to make these decisions also allows them to develop critical thinking skills and allows them to become responsible decision-makers as they seek all points of view and as they strive for accuracy, balance and clarity in their reporting,” Hall said in a prepared statement.

Superintendent Roger Cuevas requested a draft of new rules after nine Killian High School students were arrested and suspended last February for publishing a booklet filled with racist comments, depictions of rape and threats against their principal.

The pamphlet was not school-sanctioned.

The new draft states: “Schools may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student speech … as long as the actions of the school are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns.”

According to some drafts of the rules, teacher-advisers would be required to notify their principals of anything inappropriate or potentially controversial. Principals would then have the option of pulling questionable articles.

Brady Ward, a senior and co-editor of Coral Gables High School's newspaper Highlights, said she doesn't think it's fair for school officials “to punish us for actions of some irresponsible students. If they do, it would be counterproductive because it would only bring more underground newspapers.”

Ward said that her newspaper has won numerous awards and has been able to cover a wide range of topics, some controversial.

Alex Gomez, a senior at Palmetto High School, said the censorship talk makes him feel threatened.

“Fortunately, Palmetto has one of the most liberal-minded and open administrations around,” Gomez said. “But that is at great risk when we have a school board that has the power to tell the administration not to be so liberal.”

A school system spokesman said the revisions to school media guidelines won't go before the school board this summer or anytime this year.

“We have no intention of bringing it to the board,” Henry Fraind said in a prepared statement. “It's going to sit on a desk or on a file cabinet. I don't think it's going anywhere.”

But Russ Wheatley, the former administrator who helped revise the policy, said he expects the matter to come before the board soon. Some board members said the board planned to discuss the rules at a July 8 meeting.

Wheatley told the Miami Herald that the administrators might be waiting for media attention to subside before they put it on the table. “They just want the dust to clear,” he said.

Mario Weber, a Coral Gables senior who helped organize the rally, said: “We're just being proactive and making sure they know that, if it comes down or not, we're not going to sit with it very easily.”