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Lessons in Censorship/ Student Journalism: Who's Liable for Libel?/ News Bites

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By Michael Miner

Lessons in Censorship

The contradiction between journalism and public relations is never clearer than when one person is responsible for both. The middle school in Otsego, Michigan, changed the philosophy of its school paper this winter, and the school flack made the change sound inconsequential. "Students will still learn how to write, they'll still do their interviews--they'll just do it in a positive way," Dianna Stampfler told the Kalamazoo Gazette.

Stampfler said that she, the principal, and Otsego's superintendent of schools had agreed on the new direction for the Bulldog Express. "As the school PR person, I am doing my best to portray the positive things in the school district," she told the Gazette.

But Stampfler felt terrible. As the adviser to the Bulldog Express for the past four years she'd built a paper that had won top honors from the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association. She'd taught the young journalism students who produced the paper that news was one thing, good news often another. She'd taught them journalism was about telling the truth.

The truth telling ended in January. Unhappy with an article in a first semester issue of the Bulldog Express, the new principal of Otsego Middle School insisted on reviewing all copy before publication. When Stampfler showed her a story on alleged shoplifting during the eighth-grade ski trip, the principal spiked it.

To Dan Vagasky, 14, the paper's editor, this was censorship. Supported by his parents, he contacted first the Kalamazoo Gazette and later the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. The Gazette jumped on the story of educators who'd censored a school paper, even though everyone in town (there are only some 4,000 people in Otsego) surely knew by the next morning what had happened during the ski trip. The law center found Vagasky a pro bono attorney, Shaun Murphy, in Grand Rapids. Eventually an Associated Press story made Otsego nationally notorious.

When I called Stampfler last week and asked if she felt caught in the middle, she said not any longer. "That very first article [in the Gazette] made it look as if I was supporting the superintendent, and I only did it because I was afraid of losing my job" as adviser. But the local teachers' union has since weighed in against her, declaring that a noncertified teacher doesn't belong in a classroom--not even for the hour a day Stampfler gave the journalism students. And the school has proposed that a science teacher take over. "I might as well express my opinion," she told me.

She said, "I'm on the side of the editor, and the administration doesn't like that. I've been studying journalism since I was 15. I'm 28 now. I always do support First Amendment rights. If I lose my job, so be it. There's some confusion among our administrators as to what the role of the adviser is. They see it as convincing students to do what I want them to do. I see it as convincing the administration this is what the kids want to do."

Last week Stampfler, Dan Vagasky, principal Susan Minegar, and the Otsego school district's director of curriculum tried to draw up Bulldog Express guidelines everyone could live with. Stampfler and Vagasky felt queasy about the results.

"It was pretty vague in a lot of areas as to what they could and couldn't censor," says Vagasky. "One of the things I didn't like is they were extremely reluctant to put anything in referring to journalism, though it's a journalism class. At first they had it down as an elective class in writing and language arts. Since that was completely untrue, even though writing's involved, they switched it to a class in communications, which I still don't like. But they wouldn't move any farther than that."

Here Vagasky is putting his finger on something significant. All over America, classes and even schools in journalism have been rededicated to communications. If you value nuance you can't like the change. Journalism is freighted with solemn obligation; communications is diffuse chat. A body of law and tradition protects journalism, and even a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that dramatically limited the student press acknowledged the First Amendment rights of students.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier is infamous among First Amendment absolutists for finding that the administrators of a public high school had the right to censor a school-sponsored publication if the censorship was "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." (In the Hazelwood case the suppressed stories concerned teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children.) The court cut student papers more slack if they were extracurricular and if they were run as "public forums"--which is to say there was a history of unrestricted reporting by students.

Vagasky isn't eager to see his dispute with his principal and superintendent of schools wind up in court, but he knows it might. And attorney Shaun Murphy has told him that Hazelwood ultimately could work in his favor.

Murphy says Stampfler ran the Bulldog Express as a public forum. "It's written about gangs, religions, drugs--a wide range of activities." And he says the school district's first explanation for repressing the article about the school trip didn't even attempt a pedagogical argument. "They thought it made the school look bad."

"I wouldn't view it as a compromise of First Amendment rights," the Kalamazoo Gazette quoted Superintendent James Leyndyke saying early in the controversy. "I view any piece of information that comes out of the schools as our opportunity to put our best foot forward."

Vagasky says, "We were told that it reflected badly on the school and it was full of misinformation. But when the principal told us this she wouldn't tell us what the misinformation was and all the information was confirmed by the Allegan County sheriff's department. Then later it came up about how they have some confidential letter that leads the school board to believe if the story is published the child could be hurt. They wouldn't be more specific than that."

Superintendent Leyndyke didn't simply refuse to be specific with me this week--he wouldn't discuss the dispute at all. He simply let it be known there was more to this than a bystander could fathom. "It isn't what it appears," he assured me. "It's a tough situation."

The guidelines Stampfler and Vagasky had discussed with Minegar changed after the principal passed them on to Leyndyke. The draft Leyndyke circulated at this Monday night's school board meeting defined the Bulldog Express as a "course in Written and Visual Communication" and a "forum to showcase student work and highlight their accomplishments." Anything that "made fun of, embarrassed or humiliated" a student was forbidden. The superintendent presided atop the "responsibility flow chart," and the administration reserved the right "to withhold from publication any material that is inconsistent with the goals and mission of the building." As for prior review: "The teacher/adviser will provide the principal with a topic list which will be developed with the building's goals in mind before students begin actual work on projects. The teacher/adviser will submit the student's draft copy in a timely manner to provide the principal five school days to review the material."

As for intellectual freedom, materials promoting "ideological agendas" were forbidden.

After the meeting Stampfler was seen sobbing in the hallway. And Murphy told her and the Vagaskys it was now time for them to let him do all the talking.

"We haven't even been able to cover this story in the school paper," Stampfler had told me earlier. "They've talked about it in some of the other classes. Some of the teachers have all the articles hung up on their walls."

And you don't? I asked her.

It's self-censorship, she said. "The superintendent who made this decision--his daughter's an editor of the paper. She's in the classroom. We know it puts her in a bad position. We don't want her willfully or otherwise having to report back, so we don't talk about it."

Whose side is Jamie Leyndyke on? I've wondered. Dan Vagasky says he doesn't know. Stampfler said, "Some friends say she agrees with what we're fighting for."

I asked Leyndyke if his daughter supports him. "My daughter loves me," he replied, insisting I quote him. "And I love my daughter."

Student Journalism: Who's Liable for Libel?

The Kalamazoo Gazette published the article that the Bulldog Express could not. The Bulldog Express article correctly didn't name the accused student. But it did say this: "On Thursday, Jan. 23, the eighth graders left on schedule to their day on the slopes of our local ski resort, Bittersweet. All was well until just before lunch, when an eighth grader excused herself from the slopes and helped herself to some goods in the Ski Shop. It was determined that one student did the actual theft and then distributed it to other students back on the slopes."

Did your adviser approve this? I asked Dan Vagasky. Yes, he said. Has the student been found guilty in court yet? No, he said. But the article assumes her guilt, I told him.

"That's a valid point," Vagasky said. "If they had brought up a valid point like that it would have been 'OK, we'll switch it.' But saying it reflects badly on the school--that's not a reason."

Not much of one. What was genuinely objectionable--though, as Vagasky said, easily fixable--about the suppressed article slipped through the cracks. No one noticed a flaw in the student-written story that conceivably could have mired the school district in a lawsuit that wouldn't have been about First Amendment infringement but about libel.

Six states have now passed laws defining and protecting the rights of student journalists. Legislation failed in Michigan, but Illinois may soon become the seventh. Last week house bill 154, sponsored by Representative Mary Lou Cowlishaw, a Naperville Republican, was approved by the education committee by a vote of 19 to one. The Illinois Press Association supports it; so do the state associations of principals and school boards. But Cowlishaw's bill acquired this support only after it was rewritten completely. The problem with the earlier draft was that it placed legal liability where it couldn't belong--totally on the students.

This draft was brought to Cowlishaw by the Illinois Journalism Education Association, and it pushed the rights of student journalists beyond both Hazelwood and anything the General Assembly would ever authorize. It would have permitted the prior restraint of a student paper only when school officials anticipated "material and substantial disruption" of school operations and could point to "specific facts"--not merely "undifferentiated fear or apprehension"--as evidence. Responsibility for determining "news, opinion, and advertising content" would lie strictly with the students. Their adviser, empowered "to maintain professional standards," could not be "fired, transferred, or removed...for refusing to suppress the protected free expression rights of student journalists."

In return, "school officials or schools districts may not be held responsible in any civil or criminal action for any expression made or published by students unless school officials have interfered with or altered the content of the student expression."

Here was First Amendment idealism pushed to the point of unworldliness. This language said that if a student paper committed a libelous blunder there would be no one to sue but the students. But then liability would become their parents' problem, though there'd been no one at the school answerable to the parents who'd had the authority to protect their interests. Many parents and principals might have preferred no school paper at all to this arrangement.

When a public hearing on bill 154 was held in Naperville one mother of a student journalist testified that even without the law she'd taken out a liability insurance policy.

The amended bill doesn't mention liability. It asserts the right of public high school students "to exercise freedom of the press" but then limits that freedom, ruling out expression "which is libelous...which is obscene or harmful to minors...which constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy...which so incites students as to cause imminent lawless action, including the violation of lawful school regulations or the disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

"It may be vague language," said Representative Cowlishaw, "but it's straight out of the case law."

The original bill, she said, "wasn't going anywhere. There were too many people with too many concerns." And the bill brushed aside too many fundamental questions. "To whom does a newspaper belong? Does it belong to the students? To the school district that finances it? To the taxpayers whose money we use to finance schools?" (If you think a newspaper belongs only to the truth, ask anyone who ever made his living at one.)

"I think the protections [offered by the amended bill] are as firm as they can possibly be," Cowlishaw, a former journalist, continued. "You'll notice the amendment sets forth certain things that are prohibited. They're the same things prohibited in any newspaper office. An adviser serves a lot like a managing editor or a city editor. Hopefully he or she also functions as a copy editor. [But] we do not teach children well if what we teach them is to avoid subjects that are controversial or difficult. We teach children the wrong lesson if we say liberty is OK as long as you're a grown-up, but it doesn't apply to you."

For better or worse, the amended bill doesn't put the adviser beyond the reach of a punitive principal.

"This bill was not about employment security," Cowlishaw said. "It's about freedom of the press."

And it doesn't give student journalists ironclad protection against the principal who spikes anything he thinks makes his school look bad--the "number one" issue when high school papers are censored, according to an attorney at the Student Press Law Center.

Cowlishaw recognizes the type. "I know that attitude, but it's not a worthy attitude. And any educator who has that attitude is in my opinion in the wrong field."

News Bites

Last Thursday a box alongside the masthead of the Sun-Times business section contained the message, "Golf fashions from Marshall Field's Today on Page 5." Will a full index to advertisers be next?

Unworthy of a Serious Newspaper, part two: Michael Sneed, in the Sports Final: "I just returned from the Amazon, where I ate bugs: white larvae that tasted like bacon when roasted. My pal Dorothy Collin (the former INC. maven) and I thought we'd study the fauna, flora and medicinal miracles of the Indian shamans of the Amazon rain forest."

Michael Sneed, in the Late Sports Final: "I just returned from the Amazon, where I ate bugs: white larvae that tasted like bacon when roasted. I thought we'd study the fauna, flora and medicinal miracles of the Indian shamans of the Amazon rain forest." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Vagasky and his father Bill/ photo by Charles Parker.

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