Arkansas legislator says new Fort Smith Public School media rules are ‘disturbing’

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,868 views 

The Arkansas Legislature passed a law this spring to protect student journalists. Enactment of Fort Smith Public Schools’ new policies concerning student publications seemed to mostly ignore the law.

Act 912, signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson the week of April 8, makes several incremental changes to the 1995 Student Publication Act. The law now covers all school-sponsored “media” instead of just “publications,” which allows for protection of blogs, social media postings, online only “newspapers” and videos, according to Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, lead sponsor.

While the law, both before and after revision, states that school districts must have rules and regulations in the form of a written student media policy, Act 912 changed language to ensure changes recognized that “students may exercise their right of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

The FSPS school board voted Monday (July 8) to approve student handbook changes in regard to student publications that would make the handbook align with policy changes approved by the board earlier this year. The new student publication policies state all publications supported financially by the school or published in conjunction with a class are considered school-sponsored publications and as such “do not provide a forum for public expression.”

“Such publications, as well as the content of student expression in school-sponsored activities, shall be subject to the editorial control of the District’s administration … ,” notes part of the new policy.

Darian Layes, executive director of student services for FSPS, said changes to the policy were based on Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA) recommendations.

But the Arkansas Press Association and Mayberry believe Fort Smith’s policy is in violation of key aspects of the act.

“The Arkansas General Assembly just this year strengthened the Arkansas Student Publications Act to guarantee a student journalist’s First Amendment right to free expression. Act 912 of 2019 passed overwhelmingly and was signed into law by Gov. Hutchinson,” said Ashley Wimberley, Arkansas Press Association executive director. “It seems Fort Smith’s new policy contradicts Act 912 and its limited exemptions. … This overreaching and unfair new policy is an insult to student journalists and the journalism advisors who teach them.”

After reviewing the FSPS policy and the ASBA model policy on its website, Mayberry found some areas of both “disturbing.”

“The first thing that strikes me is it is not based on current law. That is simple to see because they use publication throughout. We updated that language to media specifically to give protection to other areas such as social media. It (the media wording) is not on either (the FSPS or the ASBA) version. It has not been updated apppropriately,” Mayberry said.

Mayberry also said wording of the new law specifically adds protection for students’ freedom of expression. That wording is missing in the new Fort Smith policy.

“That is there to ensure for that freedom of speech that is protected by The First Amendment,” Mayberry said. “(These policies) limit students’ First Amendment rights.”

Mayberry also said the FSPS policy uses the word the “control” when stating that “content of student expression in school-sponsored activities shall be subject to the editorial control of the District’s administration” rather than “review.”

“There is a big difference in those two words,” Mayberry said, noting FSPS uses other words she finds “disturbing.”

Mayberry said she does not understand the need for “control” when Act 912, specifically states that public school officials and members of a school district’s board of directors shall not be held responsible for “any civil or criminal action for any expression made or published by a student journalist in student media unless the individual interfered with, altered, or made substantial decisions with respect to the content of the student expression.”

“This law specifically protects school administrators and school board members,” Mayberry said.

When listing things not allowed in student publications, the FSPS policy limits among other things “hate literature that scurrilously attacks ethnic, religious, or racial groups.” This is another area of contention for Mayberry.

“Nowhere in the law does it say that,” Mayberry said.

Act 912 limits “student media that harass, threaten, or intimidate a student.” The FSPS policy language also differs from the language in the ASBA model policy, Mayberry said.

“We were very careful on the wording. We worked with the AAEA (Arkansas Association of Education Administrators) to get the wording right. (What FSPS uses) is not what the law says. We spent a lot of time on an agreement for that wording. Where did they get these words? I’m very concerned that language is there (the policy) that is not reflective of what our goal was in the wording of the law,” Mayberry said.

Another area of violation appears to be in how the new policy came to be written, according to Wimberley. The old law and Act 912 state that school media policies should be “developed in conjunction with the student publication media advisors and the appropriate school administrators.” FSPS officials said the district’s new policy was written from the ASBA model policy, not from meetings with school media advisors.

Mayberry said she wondered how many other school districts have also adopted the ASBA model policy concerning student media policies and will also find themselves in violation of state law because the model policy clearly does not adhere to Act 912.

For its part, Fort Smith Public Schools are ready to enact changes that may be needed to the new policy.

“We did not have an updated student media policy, so the district adopted the ASBA model policy in effect at the time of the vote. Now, we will engage with the student media sponsors to develop rules and regulations consistent with the statute and the guidelines from the ASBA. As shared in the abstract about the handbook changes that were approved on July 8, policies in the handbook can now be reviewed and updated as new laws go into effect and case law is determined throughout the school year,” said Dr. Doug Brubaker, FSPS superintendent.

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