This post has been updated—the board will be voting on this rule change on December 7, not November 16 as originally reported.
On December 7, the Seattle School Board will vote to to adopt a broad new “freedom of expression” rule change that would not only give school officials sweeping new authority to determine what is, and isn't, appropriate for student newspapers, radio, and television stations—it would also give high school principals the authority to review and widely censor student content, and outlaw material that might promote everything from student protests to "boisterous conduct".
"What we’re saying is, you do have the right to free speech but you can’t defame, you can’t libel," explains school Board member Harium Martin-Morris, who orchestrated the drafting of the new rule.
But the two-page-long rule change appears to go much further than that. Now, at least two journalism students at Ballard High School are posting flyers around Ballard and courting students and teachers at other Seattle public schools to raise awareness and block the change.
"If this rule passes, we wouldn't be able to criticize school policy—which we do a lot," says 17-year-old Kate Clark, Editor-in-Chief of the Ballard high school student newspaper, The Talisman. "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." Clark says she first heard about the change on November 3.
Specifically, the rule change would prohibit "Publications or oral speeches which criticize school officials or advocate violation of school rules may be prohibited when there is evidence which supports a forecast that a material and substantial disruption of school may develop." What kind of substantial disruption, you ask? "Student riots, destruction of property, widespread shouting, or boisterous conduct... or substantial student participation in a school boycott, sit-in, stand-in, walk-out, or other related form of activity."
In addition, school publications "must be free of content that: runs counter to the instructional program... advocates the violation of law or a school rule... or is inappropriate for the maturity level of the students."
The rule changes gives school principals the authority to "monitor student verbal and written expression" for these and other disturbing trends of free, critical thought.
Clark and her managing editor, 18-year-old Katie Kennedy, argue that the rule change muzzles students' ability to critically review their school and its policies and practices. For example: "Our last issue, we focused on the new, earlier start time policy [implemented by the school] and argued that maybe it shouldn’t be changed," explains Kennedy. "Next issue, we've got an article that debates skipping class versus being tardy to class. If I were to advise skipping class, we could be punished." Or, more likely, the article simply wouldn't run.
But Martin-Morris insists that the rule change was necessary because right now there are no district policies in place outlining students' rights to free speech and expression. "We had no policy in the district around freedom of expression—we had quite a hole, honestly," he says. "In this policy, what we were and are attempting to do, is define what is protected speech and what is not."
Oddly, it appears that such a policy is already in place. From the Seattle Public School's Student Rights and Responsibilities:
Students have the right to FREEDOM OF THE PRESS and may express their personal opinions in writing. They must take full responsibility for the content of their publications by identifying themselves as authors or editors of the publication. They are not allowed to make personal attacks or publish libelous or obscene material.
Martin-Morris says he's received no negative feedback about the proposed rule change and he believes he has the votes to pass it at the November 16 school board meeting "unless [another board member] decides to pull it out and rework it."
Clark and Kennedy hope their public campaign will pressure the school board to do just that. "Our biggest issue is, if they don’t give us responsibility as journalists, to practice responsible journalism and ethics, how are we supposed to learn to be responsible?" Clark says.