New rules at Fort Smith Public Schools could limit student expression, journalism instruction

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 2,344 views 

Changes in the 2019-2020 school year to the Fort Smith Public School’s student handbook, which were approved by the FSPS board of directors Monday (July 8), could change student publications and journalism courses in the school.

The lengthy list of approved changes to the student handbook were needed because of changes to student policies approved by the board earlier this year, said Dr. Doug Brubaker, FSPS superintendent. Among the changes to the student handbook were changes to policies regarding student publications.

The previous student handbook stated that student publications would serve as educational tools, means of expression for students, forums for discourse on issues and sources of entertainment and enlightenment, according to the Statement of Policy in the handbook.

“The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of students to freedom of expression. Educators have the obligation to teach the responsibilities that accompany this freedom. First Amendment rights of students may be limited when the exercise of those rights interferes with the educational objectives of the school,” the policy stated. “School publications are not a public forum and, therefore, are not open to indiscriminate use by the public. School officials retain the right and the duty to exercise supervision and final judgment over the content of all school publications.”

However, the handbook did say school publications would offer students the opportunity to inform, investigate, interpret and evaluate, which it said were “accepted, responsible functions of the traditional democratic press.” It also stated that “all students, through the editorial pages, will have the opportunity to express their views.”

While the handbook noted that inclusions of material, including stories, illustrations and advertisement will be those of accepted journalistic practice and under the direction of school officials, it gave the responsibility of preparing the material to the students.

“It is recognized that a school publication should be prepared and published by students rather than professionally compensated journalists and it thus becomes necessary to provide the students with a journalism advisor who has proper journalism training and whose duties include: a. Teaching and implementing accepted, responsible journalism. b. Advising and counseling students in the implementation of the criteria for the inclusion of stories and other materials in the publication,” the 2018-2019 handbook states.

Students have the responsibility of truth, fairness, accuracy and responsibility in their work for the publications, the handbook said.

“Student journalists have an obligation to learn and observe the legal and ethical responsibilities expected of professional journalists, as discussed in the Code of Ethics of Professional Journalists, including accuracy and fairness. 2. Student journalists have the responsibility to know and observe applicable laws including libel, slander, obscenity, privacy, copyright, and disruption of school activities, and should consider accepted community standards of decency and good taste,” according to the handbook.

It also said publications considered by state law to be obscene to minors, slanderous or libelous, an invasion of privacy would not be allowed, nor would “publications that so incite students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violations of lawful school regulations or the disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

However, all of those provisions were redlined to be removed from the student handbook policies dealing with student publications. The new 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, whose actions shall be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns and adhere to the following limitations: 1. Advertising may be accepted for publications that do not condone or promote products that are inappropriate for the age and maturity of the audience or that endorse such things as tobacco, alcohol, or drugs. 2. Publications may be regulated to prohibit writings which are, in the opinion of the appropriate teacher and/or administrator, ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences. 3. Publications may be regulated to refuse to publish material which might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex, or conduct otherwise inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order, or to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy,” the new policy notes.

“Regarding the proposed new policy, the second and third sentences at the beginning of the new proposal especially bother me: ‘School publications do not provide a forum for public expression.’ And the next sentence, ‘Such publications…shall be subject to the editorial control of the District’s administration…,’” said Sandra Kaundart, a retired FSPS journalism teacher.

Kaundart retired four years ago after teaching journalism and English at Chaffin Junior High School. She began her journalism career as an eighth-grade student in Fort Smith, took it throughout high school, and graduated from the University of Central Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She worked at newspapers in Conway and Fordyce for three years before teaching.

“Journalism was an elective offered to students in the eighth grade, and until about 10 years ago was a full-year course where I taught the various writing styles and every other aspect connected to producing a newspaper as well as the history of American newspapers, First Amendment rights, censorship, libel, ethics, etc.,” she said. “This course was a requirement before taking journalism in the ninth grade. That ninth-grade class served as the newspaper staff that produced a monthly newspaper that consistently won state and national honors.”

Kaundart said the new policy takes away control of student newspapers from teachers “who should be trained and knowledgeable enough to teach the students and run the newspaper as if it were a professional one.”

“I think this proposed new policy may be due to many issues. For one, it is my understanding that the state Department of Education now says journalism does not even have to be offered by schools as an elective, and I believe to teach journalism only requires the teacher to take six hours of college journalism courses to teach it. To me, this is relegating journalism to the status of a teacher sponsored organization rather than a serious educational course of study,” Kaundart said. “I think another influence to this proposal is probably due to today’s current state of fake news and lack of respect for professional journalists. But, if we discontinue trained journalism teachers and legitimate journalism courses in our schools, won’t this situation become worse?”

She also said the new rules amount to censorship.

“In my 31 years of teaching, I never had to have prior approval from my principal or any other administrator before the student newspaper was published,” Kaundart said. “The school newspaper is a public forum since it is produced by students and allows the sharing of ideas through letters to the editor and guest columns (at least that’s the way it was when I taught). Editorial control of the newspaper should be left up to the teacher who is there to teach and guide the students. Anything else is akin to prior restraint and censorship. There are several scholastic court cases to support this.”

When asked about the changes to the student publication policy, Darian Layes, executive director of student services for FSPS, said changes were based on Arkansas School Board Association recommendations.

“The school board association offers a service where they monitor legislative changes. They have staff there that studies this, and they look for best practices and best policies around the country. You adopt their policies. Then every time there is a change they notify us, so there is less chance of something falling through the cracks,” Layes said, noting the changes were not brought about by anything occurring in Fort Smith public schools.

School Board Member Greg Magness agreed the changes were based on model rules, though that does not always mean they are right. He said he did not have an opinion on the policy changes, but he would look more at the changes regarding student publications.

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