“Your students have more First Amendment protection than you do in the work place.”
Those disconcerting words started out a lesson in high school press law for the ASNE Reynolds Institute in Phoenix this June. The lesson came from Frank LoMonte, the Student Press Law Center in Virginia.
LoMonte’s opening lines captured the essence of what teachers often feel when they deal with the pressure of helicopter principals, school boards and others who fear unfettered student access to mass media.
However, he said, teachers need not fear because there is a greater chance of the school being sued because of a football injury.
“So far the law suits for football are 399,” he said. “For high school journalism it is zero.”
Not all states are created equal when it comes to free speech. In fact, if schools are in one of seven states they are afforded extra protection under the law if they designate the school paper as a student forum, LoMonte said.
“You need to have the ‘we’re in this together’ conversation with principals,” LoMonte said. “Remind them that your job, together, is to not expose the school to a censorship lawsuit.”
LoMonte also said that if high school principals are skeptical of a high school paper that isn’t closely monitored by the administrators, they can often be persuaded by the fact “journalism is teaching all the lessons of civility online.”
And that’s good news for 21st Century learning, he said.
Despite that, teachers “as an employee don’t have a whole hell of lot of protection,” LoMonte continued.
California and Kansas have recently passed anti-retaliation legislation that protects journalism teachers from being used as pawns to censor the student media.
To illustrate his point, LoMonte made his hand into a pretend gun, held it to a teachers head in the class room and pretended to be a principal shouting: “You like your teacher don’t you? You like your teacher don’t you.”
He then pointed out that threatening to fire a teacher sends a very chilling affect on students who want to challenge a principal’s effort to censor newspaper content.
And while there has never been high school papers lose a lawsuit, there have been some settlements.
“You need to ask yourself: ‘Who can sue? What would they sue me for?’” he said, explaining that asking those kinds of questions helps students and teachers contemplate the repercussions of photos they may publish.
However, like most situations, LoMonte said, the law still has a lot of gray areas and teachers need to stay vigilante.
Montezuma-Cortez High School