When pontificating about what rights student journalists should and shouldn't have, the Seattle Times should at least adhere to a basic of journalism 101 itself: getting the facts straight.
In its editorial Sunday, March 25, the Times used a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving a student from Alaska (the student got in trouble for holding a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner across the street from school) to slag on a freedom-of-press bill that's in play in Olympia.
At first, the Times correctly argued that the student was standing across the street from the school, so the state had no right to quash his speech. They added: "The courts should not overturn Tinker [a landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case that guaranteed students' First Amendment rights]." But then, completely misunderstanding the significance of Tinker, they add that if the student had been on school grounds it would be a different story: "There are limits to free speech, particularly inside a school. School administrators can regulate speech on campus if it is vulgar, disruptive, or interferes with education."
The Seattle Times needs to go back to high school. (That's where I learned about Tinker, anyway. Thanks, Ms. Cecil!) By drawing a distinction between off-school grounds and on-school grounds, they miss the point of Tinker—the standard they supposedly support. In Tinker, the Supreme Court famously wrote: "It can hardly be argued that... students... shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech... at the schoolhouse gate. Students in school as well as out of school are 'Persons' under our Constitution."
Worse than getting the facts wrong, the Seattle Times uses the editorial to come out against a free-press bill that's currently moving through the legislature. "A school needs to have a degree of authority, including over speech. That is why the Seattle Times opposes the bill sponsored by Representative Dave Upthegrove to give editorial control of high-school newspapers to the students."
Upthegrove's bill aims to reinstate Tinker, which was rendered meaningless in 1988 when the Supreme Court ruled that administrators could censor speech, like student papers, for purely "educational" (read subjective) reasons.
Luckily, states are allowed to be more liberal than the feds when protecting rights. That's where Upthegrove's bill—which makes censorship of student papers more difficult—comes in. Under the Tinker standard, administrators have to show that the speech in question actually disrupts the school day.
And certainly, there's always a check on student journalists anyway—akin to the check on professional reporters: The faculty adviser acts as an editor, checking for the things that real editors check for, like libel. More important, journalism teachers give out grades. So, like an editor in the real world who has authority over a reporter, the teacher's power to hand out Cs, Ds, and Fs deters students from publishing irresponsible journalism.
However, if the teacher is like an editor, the principal is like the state. Students should not be taught that the state has the final say.