For their own good?
Student news on-line censored by schools for 'safety' reasons
Student editors of Dulaney High School’s Griffen stopped producing the on-line version of the newspaper this October in protest of a new telecommunications policy in Baltimore County that prohibits students’ names and photos from appearing on school Web sites.
Student journalists in the area claim it is impossible to print a credible newspaper without last names.
This situation reflects a brewing battle between student journalists and school administrators across the country as the two sides lock horns on the issue of student identification on school-sponsored Web sites.
A growing number of students say their press rights are being sacrificed by school officials who are imposing content regulations for publications on the school-sponsored Web sites that are more restrictive than those for student newspapers.
School administrators say they fear liability if providing full names and photos of minors on school-sponsored Web sites gives net-surfing potential criminals access to students.
Student journalists ask: What is the difference between publishing student names and photos in a newspaper and doing the same on the Internet?
Does the new frontier of the Internet warrant a different standard of free speech for students?
Many school districts think so and have enacted Internet policies that limit students’ rights to expression on-line, while allowing them much broader press freedoms for print publications.
Other Baltimore area students affected by the school district’s policy complain that the restrictions prevent them from receiving full credit for stories and art that is displayed on the Web, a consequence that they fear may jeopardize their college admissions.
County administrators concede that the Internet policy is not perfect and say they are willing to make revisions in the future.
The Journalism Education Association’s past president, Candace Perkins Bowen acknowledges that fears about new technology are common, but warns schools against making on-line policies different from their print rules.
“People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and such technophobia is even more apparent with the Internet,” explained Bowen to an adviser struggling with her administration.
“The Supreme Court, when it ruled on the Communications Decency Act last summer, indicated on-line media has the same freedoms as print,” said Bowen in a message to schools.
An adviser at an Illinois high school (who asked not to be identified) is trying to convince her school district that their and many other schools’ newspapers have been identifying students on-line with no incident.
Attorneys for the school district want to avoid becoming a “test case.” This teacher says the parent in her understands the fears, but the journalist in her has trouble accepting the regulations.
“It’s a child safety issue,” said Cheryl Williams, director of technology programs at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “There is a heightened sense of fear about Internet based information. Is it valid? I don’t know. There’s danger in the telephone, too but we don’t seem so concerned about that.”
Williams said her organization does not have an official position regarding student identification on the Internet.
With no apparent standard available, school officials are using different factors to set their own guidelines.
Some schools require parental permission before publishing student photos. Others, such as Howard County, Md., weigh student age when determining their school Web site policies. School officials are more likely to allow names and photos of older students to be published on-line.
Administrators in Anne Arundel County, Md., tackled the Internet identification problem by isolating the school’s home page and student publications from the rest of the Web so that no non-school related net-surfers could see it, despite opposition from teachers and students.
It may take a lawsuit to determine if schools can legally prevent student newspapers from being displayed with student names and photos on school Web sites, but can school officials prevent students from publishing their news on Internet sites independent of the school?
High school cheerleaders in Pennsylvania have set up their own Web page after Owen J. Roberts School District refused to display their site. The district is supported by a local newspaper in the community of Bucktown which said in an editorial, “[A] picture of a cheerleader on the Internet could lead to thousands of words reporting tragedy if it sets off a psychopath who then lives out his violent Internet dreams.”
In their caution to prevent anything bad from happening, school administrators may be stifling good things as well claims Bowen.
“Do they realize this means no GOOD news can go out, either? No wins, touchdowns, no scholarships, etc. What will they do if the local paper puts up a site? They can’t keep them from using student names,” Bowen said.
But they’re trying.
A local PTA has asked the La Canada Valley Sun in southern California to stop identifying area students in the on-line version of their newspaper.
The editor and publisher, Steven Whitmore, understands the PTA concerns for child safety, but believes, “their fear is unfounded when it comes to the news online.”
“I have two children age 10 and 5. If the horrific tragedy occurred that one of my children were victimized by a sexual deviant who first saw their pictures on somebody else’s homepage, I would blame the deviant, not the on-line service, because they are the one who victimized my children.”
Whitmore plans to continue publishing student photos and names on his paper’s Web site if they are part of important, newsworthy stories.
Bowen fears resolution of the student identification issue may have to come from a judge.
“Every new communications media met with panic, misunderstanding and ridiculous laws when it first emerged — even the printing press and the telephone,” said Bowen. “Sadly, some of these issues will have to be decided by case law.”
reports, Winter 1997-98