Online student publications held to higher standard than print counterparts

Thursday, May 13, 1999

The growing number of high school papers using the Internet to advance their publications has school officials questioning the wisdom of displaying information about students on the Web.

Mike Hiestand, attorney for the Student Press Law Center, says the fact that online versions of school newspapers can be read outside the local community causes school boards to look at them more critically.

“It is basically a fear of the unknown,” Hiestand said. “There is a lot of fear of dangers that no one has shown [to] exist,” he said.

“The rules ought to be the same for both [online and print],” Hiestand said. “The courts have interpreted the law to pertain the same to the Web as it does to print.”

The policy for the online version of The Express at Maize High School in Maize, Kan., states that students' last names and “recognizable photographs of students” are prohibited. Phyllis Wipf, newspaper adviser, says that student's faces must not be identifiable in online photographs.

“Since the Internet is so far-reaching, [the school board] wants to be extra cautious,” Wipf said. So far, The Express has adhered to the guidelines set by school district, she says.

However, Wipf notes that this summer members of the newspaper staff will ask the school board to allow the online version of their school paper to operate as an open forum. She says that currently the Express page is accessed through the high school Web site. “The newspaper staff would have to decide if they wanted to start an independent site,” Wipf said.

Ross Namaste, communications manager for the National Scholastic Press Association, said that concerns about student safety being threatened by allowing names and pictures to appear online are unfounded. “Instances of online stalkers are very rare,” Namaste said.

Still, said Wipf, “we want to try to work within the district at this time. We're not looking to make any waves …. We want to make people understand.”

Shirley Yaskin, journalism adviser for Palmetto High School in Miami, Fla., says The Panther's Web site has continued to run photographs of students with names identifying them in spite of school guidelines prohibiting the use of photographs and names of students.

Yaskin said that the staff didn't want the online version of their paper to be accessed through the school Web site, but use of the site was free. “If [using the school Web site] became a problem we would set up our own site,” Yaskin said.

Yaskin says that no one has addressed the fact that The Panther online is not abiding by school guidelines. “The school board isn't bothering us because we've caused enough trouble,” she said.

Last year the school board sought to require The Panther to undergo prior review by the principal. “Hundreds of kids rallied at a demonstration last June to fight censorship of papers,” Yaskin said. The school board eventually dropped the issue because of the negative publicity it generated, she said.

Not all student online publications are under fire. Marie Harris, journalism adviser at George Washington High School in Danville, Va., says that community support for The Chatterbox, as well as its positive reputation for the past 30 years, has helped deflect anxiety about the online version.

“Rather than let [the school board] censor us, I would oppose it,” Harris said. The board “has allowed us to have an open forum thus far, and they can't go backwards.”

Harris says that the local newspaper has a Web site where students who are involved in sports or who have won awards are pictured and named.

“Would the school board ask the local paper to stop printing students' names?” Harris asked rhetorically.