Yesterday, we covered the recent decision of student journalists at Faribault High School to move their newspaper, the Echo, online after it was shut down by the district superintendent. The superintendent shut down the newspaper after students refused to comply with the superintendent’s request to review an article prior to publication. Instead, students decided to form their own online newspaper, which is not funded by the school.
This case raises some questions about students’ speech rights as journalists and as users of the Internet.
In some ways, starting an online newspaper independent of the school is quite liberating for students and for student speech. Along with the empowerment involved in organizing an entirely student-run enterprise, the students writing for the Echo are now free to write pretty much whatever they want. They certainly won’t face the prospect of prior review from school administrators.
But what does it say about the state of student speech rights when student journalists feel censored to the point where they start their own off-campus newspaper? While www.truthwithecho.com brings students a greater degree of control over their product, the choice to officially dissociate the newspaper from the school and move it online still leaves a prior review policy and its resulting chill on other students’ speech, should others want to form another student newspaper. Or, what will happen with the next provocative theater production or exhibit of student artwork? In fact, the result from both sides (students and superintendent) teaches a poor lesson about student press: it’s not free when it’s on campus. At least not at Faribault High.
In addition, how can we be sure the school won’t discipline students for controversial content in the website? As a student newspaper whose mission is to cover news and events in the school community, inevitably there will be some issues that arise that students talk about in school. Although students say they are changing the newspaper’s name, could the Echo, even under a different name, still be misconstrued by some to represent the school? Under Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, does the school still have a right to restrict student speech in other ways, to make demands of the newspaper, or to discipline students for provocative or controversial content in the online, off-campus paper?
The larger problem may come from efforts by school officials to regulate student speech online in general. I commend the students of the Echo for standing by free speech principles and objecting to the superintendent’s efforts to impose prior review. But by escaping one kind of threat, they now face another: the growing potential for school officials to punish students for what they do online, at home, outside of school.
As a host of recent cases involving Facebook and MySpace demonstrates, school officials are making greater efforts to get involved in controlling student speech online.
The growth of online speech is commendable. But it also means the growth of school policies to control it. For example, school officials in West Burlington, Iowa, are considering including online behavior in their school conduct policy
And Facebook, MySpace, and other sites teens use for social networking and online communication are run by private companies. As we’ve seen in recent days, these sites can and do remove content they find to be inappropriate. At the end of the day, they are businesses.
But public entities are different. We turn to public libraries as places where the marketplace of ideas is protected and government restrictions on free speech prohibited. Public schools ideally teach students both a body of knowledge and an understanding of democracy. The First Amendment guards against restrictions on free speech from these public entities. It is to them that we must be able to turn to protect our civil liberties and to promote the right to speak freely.
While the move to an online newspaper may be a ready solution for student journalists facing prior review from school administrators, depending on commercial websites to protect our free speech is inadequate. Student speech shouldn’t be so chilled in school that it is shutdown entirely and moved elsewhere; the Internet shouldn’t be students’ only forum for free expression. There are protections for student speech in public schools. In the landmark student speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969), the Supreme Court famously declared that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” And when they are speaking off campus, students have free speech rights as citizens. It’s a shame the Faribault students were censored on campus; let’s hope they aren’t censored off campus, too.