High school principals would get "the legal backing and the tools to censor" young journalists if the Missoula County Public Schools adopts a proposed publications policy, a University of Montana journalism professor said Thursday.
Clem Work, who teaches media law, was among a dozen people urging MCPS administrators to scrap the proposal - and in Work's case, consider a new one.
"I would advocate going the other way," he told a room full of people in the MCPS administration building. "Strengthening our commitment to teaching the role of a free press in society."
Work is one of 15 people sitting on a special committee formed by MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle to look into the policy, which has become highly controversial among academics, students and teachers.
Others committee members include student journalists, journalism teachers, the chief MCPS legal counsel and administrators including Apostle.
As proposed, the new language would update MCPS' existing policy, scrapping some sections and adding others.
The most controversial changes would ban "socially inappropriate" journalism and writing "inappropriate due to the maturity level of the students" in school newspapers, yearbooks and other school-sponsored publications.
The district says it needs the new policy, in part, to address the threat of a lawsuit. But Apostle also said Thursday that hurtful and demeaning things written about students are also a threat to the "educational mission" of MCPS.
"I have a responsibility as the superintendent to protect the district and its students," he said. "When we disrespect a student in any way, it detracts from the mission of this school district. And our mission is clear - we want a rigorous curriculum and we want all students to graduate."
But that curriculum won't include a healthy respect and regard for the First Amendment if the policy is approved, others said.
The current policy already bans libelous, racist or obscene language, they said.
And spotting it "is what you have journalism teachers for," said Dave Severson, a 20-year Sentinel High School journalism teacher and now president of the teachers union. "Otherwise, why not just make the principal the writer and editor-in-chief?"
Already, the proposed policy has made students nervous.
"You have to trust in your editors," said Chanelle Paakkonen, who will be co-editor of the Big Sky Sun Journal this coming school year. "And I think that's being taken away from me."
Sentinel senior Michael Melugin complained that the policy "is not going to help anything. I don't think it helps to make students afraid to write something."
But MCPS chief legal counsel Elizabeth Kaleva countered that the Supreme Court has already outlawed the broad censorship that many feel is imminent at MCPS, and that school administrators "cannot viewpoint-censor articles."
Much of the language of the policy is adopted from Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 Supreme Court decision that gave school administrators broad authority to regulate the content of publications published as part of the school curriculum.
Yearbooks and newspapers in Missoula's high schools are part of for-credit journalism classes. Such publications are not a "public forum" and therefore subject to more stringent standards, the court said.
But MCPS' policy goes beyond the limitations of Hazelwood by using terms like "socially inappropriate," said David Aronofsky, UM's legal counsel, who drew the afternoon's only applause with his testimony.
"Let me tell you something," he said, addressing Apostle directly. "Journalism isn't any good if it's not provocative and offending somebody."
Most people, including school principals, would fail a test on libel law, he said. And as written, the policy could be used to strike any objectionable material - libelous or merely distasteful to a school administrator.
"In 10 years, you're going to be retired," said Aronofsky, drawing the only applause during the two-hour meeting. "We're not going to have a record of the committee's intention. We're just going to have the words of this policy."
Bob Campbell, a delegate to the Montana Constitutional Convention in 1972 and author of much of its language regarding the First Amendment, urged the district to abide by that constitution and dismiss the Hazelwood decision, which journalism teachers view as onerous.
"The burden is not on (the students)," he said. "The burden is on you to prove you need to abridge their right to publish."
Journalism teachers at Big Sky and Sentinel said they are capable of teaching and leading their students, and that the policy is overly broad and could be used as a weapon by a school principal.
"I've never had a principal in my 18 years review the newspaper," said Kim Lucostic, journalism adviser at Big Sky. "My students determine the content of the newspaper. I advise them."
When something controversial arises, "I will talk with (my principal) about it, and I share what's going on."
Sentinel's Jennifer Keintz and her students already have to turn in their stories to principal Tom Blakeley days before they're published, but that may change next year after discussions between the two.
Still, the policy "makes us very nervous," she said.
In a quick vote as the meeting wrapped up, 11 of the 15 advisory board members present said they wanted the district to scrap the proposal and let the existing policy stay.
The recommendations of the committee will be forwarded to MCPS' policy committee, which will take up the issue again on Aug. 25.
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.