Mont. schools consider adopting restrictive publications policy

MONTANA -- The Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees is considering a new student publications policy that it hopes will align the journalism programs at all of its schools, but some worry the new policy too severely limits students' work.

The proposed policy states that student publications are not public forums and that administrators will not tolerate material that is "libelous, obscene, invades the privacy of others, conflicts with the basic educational mission of the school, socially inappropriate or inappropriate due to the maturity level of the students, or is materially disruptive to the educational process."

Elizabeth Kaleva, the school district's attorney, wrote the policy but said the district will likely delay approving it until students and advisers have a chance to address the board with any concerns or suggestions.

Kaleva said the policy would help protect students' First Amendment rights and will be something she could point to when community members question why the school did not censor an article with a particular point of view.

"It's not common knowledge, frankly, that students have First Amendment rights," she said. "And its not uncommon for people to say, 'Well, just shut them down.' It's hard for me to explain that we can't do that -- and we don't."

But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the vague wording of the proposed policy is "unbalanced" and, unless significantly revised, gives administrators a lot of leeway to censor students' work.

" 'Socially inappropriate' has no legal definition and just invites abuse by an administrator who wants to pull something he disagrees with," he said.

Wayne Seitz, the newspaper adviser at Hellgate High School since 1975, said he fears the new policy will bring more principal oversight, which would have a negative impact on the work the students do.

"It's a chilling effect always when [students] have that in front of them," he said. "They worry about the adviser getting in trouble. They worry about themselves getting in trouble. So they shy away from topics instead of taking them on and dealing with them."

Kaleva said the new policy is not a reaction to anything that happened with student media in Missoula County Public Schools but is a part of the district's efforts to update all of its policies.

The current policy leaves it up to the individual schools to develop a decision-making structure for student publications, which results in a lack of consistency among schools as to what content is allowed, she said.

"I guess what we're trying to do is [make it so] that it shouldn't really matter who the adviser is," Kaleva said. "It it's OK in one school, it should be OK in another."

The policy also requires that publications provide "an opportunity for the expression of differing opinions" and gives administrators authority to "edit or delete material which is inconsistent with the School District's educational mission."

Missoula County Public Schools, Montana, news