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Setting example is best way to teach First Amendment



Published: Tue, April 2, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Pennsylvania doesn't have the best law in the land protecting student editors against censorship by school boards or administrators, but what it has is better than most states, and there's no compelling reason to change it.

State education regulations contain a "freedom of expression" guarantee as part of the regulations on student rights and responsibilities.

A subsection on newspapers and publications says that school officials can halt the publication of anything "obscene or libelous," but cannot censor stories just because they criticize the school or its administration.

That policy gives administrators or school boards the tools they need to police student publications without throttling them. In short, it works.

But politicians and bureaucrats are sometimes not persuaded by the conventional wisdom of the popular interrogatory: If it ain't broke, why fix it?

And so there is a movement for change afoot in Harrisburg that would replace the 11 "freedom of expression" guidelines with four paragraphs offering general guidelines for all forms of expression, from publications to the wearing of armbands.

The problem with general guidelines is just that, their generality. Absent specific language protecting the right of student publications to function with something akin to freedom of the press, it's a sure bet that thin-skinned administrators will take advantage of the vague language to keep out of a student paper anything that offends them.

We see it often in Ohio, where, for instance, some student papers are forbidden from even commenting on their editorial pages about local school issues (the rare exception coming when the principal thinks an editorial supporting a levy would be nice).

That's not teaching students journalism, at least not journalism in the American tradition.

Examples: The Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. reports that only six states -- Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- specifically protect student press rights by law. Without such protection there are censorship horror stories from coast to coast.

One of the most striking that we found on the SPLC website (www.splc.org) was that of The Register, a national award winning newspaper at Omaha Central High School. The previously unfettered editors of that paper came under the thumb of the administration after running an expose on an ineligible football player. The player had played in five games, despite having been arrested on a charge of assault, which made him ineligible.

That the player was able to take the field would seem to indicate an oversight by the coach, athletic director and principal. But it was the student editors who were punished.

That could happen in Nebraska today, but not Pennsylvania, which should be a matter of pride for the state and a reason to preserve the state's freedom of expression language.




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