Mont. school district plans to scrap proposal for restrictive publications policy

MONTANA -- Missoula County Public Schools will likely scrap a proposal for a new student publications policy after concerns were voiced over its restrictive wording.

The consensus of a committee of district officials, students, advisers and other interested parties was that the current policy, which allows for greater student editorial control, should remain as it is, Superintendent Alex Apostle said.

Apostle created the committee to study the current and proposed policies after some criticized the proposal for language that allowed administrators greater power to censor material, including material deemed "socially inappropriate." Those opposed argued officials could abuse that power to justify censorship of something they disagreed with.

The proposed policy also declared that student publications are not public forums, in contradiction to the suggestion of Clem Work, a University of Montana journalism professor, who said the district should offer students more freedom, not less.

Work, who was a part of the committee, offered to provide annual training through the university to the district's student editors, advisers and principals about the rights and responsibilities of student journalists, but he said the programs are strong already.

"I personally don't think there's a crying need for it," he said. "The adviser and the students are doing a pretty good job of tackling some tough issues in a good, professional journalistic way, and I just don't think they need that much help or supervision."

Apostle said the committee will meet again to solidify its recommendation, which will then be passed on to the board's policy committee and eventually must be approved by the full school board. He hopes to have that done by the end of August.

"I think things will stay the same, with the addition that we're going to provide more learning experiences [with the University of Montana]," he said. "So I think it came off really well. I support the direction, and I don't see this going any further."

The district is in the process of reviewing all of its board policies, and the district's attorney, Elizabeth Kaleva, "looked at this policy and made some minor adjustments, and that created quite a few questions," Apostle said.

Work said he was happy to see the students voice their concerns over the proposed policy.

"The students were very articulate and passionate in their position," he said. "That probably is more telling than anything else."

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the decision should serve as a model for other districts that think censorship is the only way to run a successful journalism program.

"This is the exact, right way to resolve concerns over whether students can be trusted with freedom of the press," he said. "Instead of threatening or punishing them, why not just offer them better training opportunities?"

Missoula County Public Schools, Montana, news