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UPDATED: Seattle school board pulls controversial publications proposal, will revisit in 2012

November 7, 2011

WASHINGTON — After much media attention and protests from students, advisers and free speech advocates, the Seattle Public School District has decided to withdraw the freedom of expression proposal introduced at last week’s school board meeting.

The district announced Monday afternoon that the policy would be removed from upcoming agendas so administrators can “ensure that it better reflects the community’s values,” according to a press release.

“As a former journalism teacher, it is important for me — as I know it is for our Board — that we uphold our practice of trusting our teachers to educate our students on the rights and responsibilities that come with freedom of expression and free press,” Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield said in the release.

The school board will revisit the proposal in 2012, Enfield said.

Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said administrators had woken a “sleeping giant” in the form of the scholastic journalism community.

“We headed this one off at the pass,” Schrier said. “But I’m feeling like it’s still going to be revisited in 2012, and we’ve got this momentum going.”

Many students and advisers were unaware of what the current policy was, she said, and now they realize they cannot take it for granted.

“Finally, something good happens,” Schrier said. “We just get so trampled sometimes by one bad decision after another happening. When something finally works, it’s like, ‘My God, what a relief.’”

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EARLIER MONDAY:

Months after winning a libel lawsuit based on its hands-off treatment of student journalism, the Seattle Public School District seems poised to clamp down on its freedom of expression policy as part of a major school code overhaul.

Amid a flurry of updates to policies and procedures introduced at last week’s school board meeting, school principals would be granted prior review authority, and publications could be barred from running anything “disruptive” or “inappropriate.”

The new language is a reversal of the district’s long-held stance, which helped it defeat defamation claims lobbed by two Seattle landlords in response to a 2009 Roosevelt High School newspaper story.

Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center, called the move “nonsensical.”

“We dodge this rare bullet that comes our way because we do things a certain way, so let’s change that way,” Hiestand said. “Let’s do things completely differently so maybe we can encourage more lawyers to file lawsuits.”

The story in The Roosevelt News reported that brothers Hugh and Drake Sisley had been accused of “racist renting practices” at properties they own near the high school, which the article referred to as the “Sisley slums.”

The Sisleys filed separate lawsuits against the district.

A Washington state court judge dismissed Hugh Sisley’s claim in a July 22 judgment that found the district was not liable for allegedly defamatory remarks made by student media because of its freedom of the press policy.

The judge also ruled that the story was not defamatory because the Sisleys were unable to prove it false.

Sisley’s attorney is appealing to the Washington Court of Appeals.

Under the new rules, principals would be allowed to halt publication if they deem material to be potentially libelous or “not in keeping with the school’s instructional mission and values.”

The language in the policy draft is lifted from suggested wording by the Washington State School Director’s Association, which works with the state’s school boards, the Seattle Times reported.

The association allows school boards to purchase sample policy drafts and updates via an annual subscription fee, according to its website.

Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said she was stunned that the district would even consider such a restrictive policy, calling it “the policy language that just won’t die.”

“It’s just bad, bad policy that got in the pipeline and won’t go away,” Schrier said. “And it keeps being recommended by state associations and school districts just buy it hook, line and sinker. It’s like a really bad virus, and once it takes root, it just devastates the scholastic press.”

District spokeswoman Teresa Wippel said the public does have a month to comment and let their voices be heard before the board votes.

She referred additional questions to school board member Harium Martin-Morris, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment. However, Martin-Morris told the Times, “It's to make sure we don't do things that are libelous or inflammatory or any of those things.”

Similar prior review measures in the Puyallup School District, resulting from a 2008 lawsuit, have stifled student voices, Schrier said. Several students sued that district for invasion of privacy after the Emerald Ridge High School newspaper quoted them by name in a story about oral sex. The district won the case in 2010, but the prior review remains.

“The kids are self-censoring like crazy,” Schrier said. “They don’t even try important stories anymore. They know that they do all the work, and it’s just going to get crushed.”

Seattle students have wasted little time in letting their feelings about the proposed changes be known.

Two editors at Ballard High School’s The Talisman used the weekend to post signs around the school proclaiming “Student 1st Amendment Rights at Risk,” the Seattle Times reported.

Despite the Roosevelt ruling, district officials told the Times they were wary that another judge could find the district liable because student newspapers use school resources and property.

District attorneys are arguing now the lower court ruling was a “fluke,” Schrier said.

Schrier said the WJEA is interested to see what interim superintendent Susan Enfield, a former journalism adviser who has not yet commented on the situation, has to say at the next school board meeting Nov. 16.

The board will also be taking public comments on the proposal at that meeting, and Schrier said she wants to make sure all students and advocates follow proper protocol.

“What can happen if you’re raucous about stuff, there’s a pushback,” she said. “[It’s] the ‘We can’t let the inmates run the asylum’ thing.”

The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 7 on the proposal.

Now that it has raised eyebrows, Hiestand said he’s hopeful the issue will be addressed.

“There’s really no reason to change things. One, you’ve got the Roosevelt ruling, and, two, you’ve actually got a policy that’s worked really well for Seattle schools,” Hiestand said. “For this to happen here at this time, it’s kind of bizarre.”

By Nicole Hill, SPLC staff writer

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© 2011 Student Press Law Center

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