On Wednesday, November 2, the Seattle school board introduced a plan to give high-school principals new, sweeping authority to censor student newspapers. By Thursday, journalism students in Ballard, Capitol Hill, and elsewhere were peppering their neighborhoods with flyers, and organizing students and parents online to block the administrative censorship.
As 17-year-old Kate Clark, editor-in-chief of the 94-year-old Ballard High School Talisman, explains it: "If this rule passes, we wouldn't be able to criticize school policy... It would be up to our principal to decide what we could and couldn't print. He could take away 80 percent of our content."
Specifically, the rule change would allow officials to ban "publications or oral speeches which criticize school officials" or encourage school boycotts or other "substantial disruptions" including, bizarrely, "widespread shouting" and "boisterous conduct." In other words, student newspapers couldn't report news that engages with students—makes them upset, joyous, organized, or overtly political.
School board member Harium Martin-Morris, who drafted the proposed policy, insists that it's necessary because the district currently has "no policy that addresses libel or freedom of expression." (He's wrong—current district policy allows students to "express their personal opinions" as long as they don't engage in "personal attacks or publish libelous or obscene material.")
But Clark and her managing editor, 18-year-old Katie Kennedy, argue that the proposed rule essentially muzzles students' ability to critically review their school and its policies, such as earlier school start times (which the paper criticized last issue). "Next issue, we've got an article that debates skipping class versus being tardy to class," explains Kennedy. "If I were to advise skipping class, we could be punished." Or, more likely, the article simply wouldn't run. Such policies censoring student newspapers already exist in neighboring cities like Puyallup.
Adults are coming to their side. On November 4, education blogger Melissa Westbrook wrote on the Save Seattle Schools blog (www .saveseattleschools.blogspot.com), "Parents should pay attention to these rapidly changing policies." Westbrook started an online petition pressuring the board to veto the policy change, garnering 206 signatures in two days. The Stranger also pulled its election endorsement of Martin-Morris in light of his controversial proposal. (Election results weren't yet posted when the paper went to press.)
Under the mounting criticism, the Seattle School District announced on November 7 that it is deferring Martin-Morris's proposal until 2012 "to ensure that it better reflects the community's values," according to a district statement—which doesn't make this a battle won so much as rescheduled.