Journalistic Freedom for Students?

Some students in Bakersfield, California are suing their school [and/or district] for prohibiting the publication of articles on homosexuality which said students wish to publish in the school newspaper. Read about it from the AP via CNN [no longer available].

The students should lose.

I am no stranger to this kind of issue. Assistant Principal John Eggleston of Liberty High School once attempted to ban me from the LHS Sentinel for one or the other of my opinion columns in the June 2000 issue. (How he thought that banning me after the last edition of the paper in my senior year would’ve done anything is still beyond me.)

I was incensed, but I reluctantly recognized that Eggy was within his rights to ban me. The LHS Sentinel was an official publication of Liberty High School, and thus the school had a right to limit content any way they wished. The Bakersfield school has the same right.

However, I would encourage the school to reconsider on the basis of prudence rather than legality. Publications made in-school with school equipment can be limited; publications made outside of school and brought in by the students for distribution cannot (see the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). The Bakersfield school could have required that the articles be modified to their liking while they were slated to appear in the school paper, but now the school has essentially forced the students to self-publish and self-distribute outside of that context (which I strongly encourage them to do).

Students may print their own ‘underground’ paper using their own equipment (or a neighborhood Kinkos) and distribute it to their classmates during non-academic periods (lunch, between class, etc.). They can include whatever articles they want, and the school can’t do a damned thing about it.

The students’ lawsuit is frivolous and should be dropped—you have no right to use the school’s equipment or publish in their paper without their approval—but the school administrators don’t seem to realize that they potentially made things worse for themselves by forcing those articles into unsanctioned (and thus uncontrolled) papers.

On a related note, I would question how a school plans to teach students to be journalists without affording them a fair amount of journalistic freedom. Just because schools have the right to limit the official school papers doesn’t mean they should, but public education officials’ proclivity to exert 1984 style Big Brother control at the expense of education is, sadly, well-established in this country.

Scott Bradford has been putting his opinions on his website since 1995—before most people knew what a website was. He has been a professional web developer in the public- and private-sector for over twenty years. He is an independent constitutional conservative who believes in human rights and limited government, and a Catholic Christian whose beliefs are summarized in the Nicene Creed. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University. He loves Pink Floyd and can play the bass guitar . . . sort-of. He’s a husband, pet lover, amateur radio operator, and classic AMC/Jeep enthusiast.