Talk Business & Politics editorial: A disturbing insult

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,518 views 

Often how a person or organization who makes a mistake, acknowledges the mistake and then corrects the mistake says a lot about the person or organization. That’s why this media policy snafu with the Fort Smith Public School District is troubling.

A few weeks ago the administration of Superintendent Dr. Doug Brubaker asked the Fort Smith Public School Board to approve a policy change that would restrict the process and control of student expression. The policy impacts a broad range of student activities.

“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.

There were several obvious problems with adoption of the new policy that, for whatever reasons, did not seem obvious to the school board or Brubaker. First, the new policy quashed First Amendment rights for students. One might think that would be enough to raise eyebrows among board members, but, no. The new policy also was adopted in violation of state rules requiring school administration to coordinate with faculty media sponsors prior to changing student media policies.

The new policy also was adopted in violation of Act 912, a law approved more than three months earlier that made changes to the 1995 Student Publication Act. The new law covers all school-sponsored “media” instead of just “publications,” which allows for protection of blogs, social media postings, online only “newspapers” and videos. The law was pushed by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley.

Mayberry told Talk Business & Politics that the policy approved by the Fort Smith School Board is “disturbing.” She also said the FSPS policy uses the word “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.”

“That is there (Act 912) to ensure for that freedom of speech that is protected by The First Amendment,” Mayberry said. “(These Fort Smith policies) limit students’ First Amendment rights.”

Mayberry also said Act 912 protects public school officials and members of a school district’s board from being held liable 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.”

Ashley Wimberley, Arkansas Press Association executive director, was more blunt.

“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.”

Also frustrating was the response from school officials when we asked them about the policy even before we knew it violated state law. They were dismissive of our concerns about it being a First Amendment problem. They were then dismissive when asked about it violating state law – as if it was no big deal.

Also troubling is that school officials won’t provide a clear answer as to when they will remove the policy that not only stands in violation of state law, but broke state law in its enactment.

“We are scheduling a meeting with the media sponsors for shortly after they come back on contract to discuss that policy,” a school official responded when asked when the board would repeal the illegal policy.

It should not require a meeting with media sponsors to repeal an illegal policy adopted WITHOUT input from media sponsors. Simply remove it, revert to the old policy, then work with media sponsors on a new policy. The unwillingness or inability to nix the illegal policy is puzzling. We would think at least one board member would seek to remove the policy after being misguided by the administration to enact the illegal policy.

To be sure, the administration has a lot on its plate in executing an impressive $120-plus million expansion and renovation of district facilities. We have given sincere kudos to Brubaker and his staff for their part in the successful effort to gain voter approval of the millage increase. But that doesn’t give them a pass on this “disturbing” action that is an “insult” to students, and, we contend, to members of the school board. And it certainly doesn’t give them a pass on not immediately repealing the policy once they knew it was illegal.

We hope this is just a one-off cluster, but the episode requires us – we the media and you the district parents and taxpayers – to be better students of what is presented to and approved by this school board.