Students get a lesson in ‘press freedom’

Free speech ends at the school doors, the Supreme Court has ruled several times.

But it’s being tested in Faribault today, the Faribault Daily News reports, where the school superintendent has closed down the school newspaper after its journalist-students refused to let him preview a story on the investigation of middle school teacher Shelly Prieve, who has reportedly been under investigation for inappropriate communication with students.

Says the Daily News:

Though the Prieve article is at the center of the controversy, (School Superintendent Bob) Stepaniak said it has evolved into something greater than the words in that story. Instead, he said, it is about the fundamental question of whether a district’s administration has the right to review articles prior to publication.

Stepaniak insists he does. Zwaggerman and Hildebrandt insist he doesn’t. Each side is backed by legal representation.

Stepaniak points to the powers under a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, that upheld the right of public high school administrators in a suburban St. Louis, Mo., school district to censor articles about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children from a school-sponsored student newspaper.

The school newspaper’s, known as The Echo, faculty advisor Kelly Zwaggerman says she’s prepared to be removed from that role.

  • When I was in high school back in the early 80’s our superintendent made a similar claim – the right of prior review. I threatened a legal challenge. The issue wound up mute, although I was a dues paying member of the ACLU, I was also a minor. Without an adult to consent as a party to the lawsuit, the ACLU wouldn’t file. Apparently, not much has changed.

    I continue to find it astonishing when schools sponsor a newspaper, but expect students to leave their right of free speech at the school house gate.

  • bsimon

    While the story is ostensibly about the students circumventing the administration (for which I give them kudos), the story should be about whether or not the story should be published. In the Daily News story to which Bob links, the editor writes “It is not for me to pass judgment on whether anything did actually happen.”

    That seems like a ridiculous cop-out to me. Are they going to publish every allegation made about every teacher or administrator? More importantly, should they? Or do they have a duty to do a little investigative work of their own before destroying a repuation? In this case, the county attorney has chosen not to prosecute the teacher, which the newspaper reports. But is that fair? It feels like there can be such a thing as being over-protective of our children – destroying a teacher’s reputation based on anonymous sources & reporting an alleged crime for which she will not be prosecuted seems to fit the bill.

    Its certainly true that she may have done something wrong. But until they can report some reasonable allegations of wrongdoing, it seems to me like naming names is inappropriate.

  • Bob Collins

    I got into some hot water as the sports editor of my high school paper for reporting that basketball couch Doug Grutchfield had ordered star player Bob Sicard to cut hair. The basketball coach was upset, but the paper still published.

    That was 37 years ago. I saw Bob Sicard’s brother when I was back east last spring. “My mother is still mad at Grutchfield about that,” he said.

  • Obviously, Stepaniak had to make this story about something else once he pushed it to statewide attention. And now a lawsuit? What a child.

    If he wanted to protect his employee, he should have let the article run. A few hundred people might have read it and that would’ve been that.

    Now, it’s front page news—with continuing coverage!—in a city paper with a circulation of almost 14,000, and making waves all around the state.

    Stepaniak should be asked to resign first for abuse of his position and second for his general incompetence at being able to handle this situation.

    Though Prieve is under investigation, nothing has been proven. I doubt she appreciates her boss making this story so prominent, and making it appear as though she has something to hide (whether she does or she doesn’t).

  • And don’t get even me started on our country’s penchant for denying rights to those 18 and under.

  • bsimon

    “And don’t get even me started on our country’s penchant for denying rights to those 18 and under.”

    I’m not trying to be a smartarse, but what rights do children have before they’ve reached 18? None, I think. Certainly not the right to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness – those are contingent on parental approval. They can’t sign contracts, which means they lack control over themselves.

  • Children don’t have rights? No right to liberty, pursuit of happiness or even to life? Are you sure you want to say that?

    If you want to teach children about the First Amendment, let them write and publish. If they only write the classic high school op ed piece on school spirit nothing will ever happen. If they write about real issues (investigations of impropriety, politics, even bad coaching) there will be consequences – maybe an angry letter, maybe worse (I got a death threat as a student journalist).

    If the message is “put a sock in it,” sponsorship of a student newspaper is absurd.

  • bsimon

    “Children don’t have rights? No right to liberty, pursuit of happiness or even to life? Are you sure you want to say that?”

    Yes, I am. That is not to say that, for instance, I can take my child’s life; rather it is to say that my child has to go through me to enjoy limited aspects of those rights until they reach an age where they are granted those rights independantly. If my child skips school, they can’t just tell the truant officer “Hey man, I’m enjoying my rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness – which doesn’t include your lame school.” No, the child does not yet enjoy those rights.

  • No prior review? Are you kidding? What journalist for a commercial news outlet gets published/on-air without an editorial review? What if they were writing for the Star Tribune? The owners of the Strib are libel for irresponsible journalism. Who’s libel for The Echo? The School a.k.a. The State. The students can’t legally claim sole responsibility for the paper. Editorial control rests with ownership. The students don’t own it, the school board, and de facto the State of Minnesota does.

    As with many other instances, a light touch is the best guidance. Shutting down the whole paper, rather than just one article getting pulled? That seems an unreasonable response.

    If the article conforms to professional journalistic ethics/standards of practice – there is no reason it shouldn’t be published. The cases cited by the Daily News are excellent examples of social bias censoring facts unpalatable to the local people.

    First Amendment “rights” are not absolute. Slander/defamation is against the law – the unbridled freedom is only over that which is factually true. Pornography and profane language are protected under this amendment. Is that okay for high school students to publish? If your answer is no, you’re already limiting their freedom and possibly treading a slippery slope down to the Superintendent’s desk.

    Would the school district allow students to print content normally found in the City Pages or the Daily Minnesotan (U of M’s student paper)? I’m pretty sure not – not due to the story content, per se, but rather due to the language choice and visual content. Sex might help distribution, but I wouldn’t approve of my school board publishing it.

    My biggest question, in considering this: The Faribault paper didn’t mention if this was a one-off problem – was this request for prior-approval unique to this story?

    If the Superintendent realized there was going to be a story with potentially big ramifications (this sounds like it was) .. then I would expect him to want to review it prior to its publication, even if he didn’t do so on a regular basis. Has anyone seen the article in question?

    I can’t get my knickers in a twist over this, without the School actually shooting down the article after seeing it.

  • Unfashionable as it is – and I’ve been in something like those kids’ position, actually – I’m going to side with the principal.

    If, say, Bob Collins writes a piece that puts Minnesota Public Radio in legal hot water -well, that’s MPR’s business. And since it’s their business, they have the procedural infrastructure – lawyers, editors, “journalistic standards” – to make MPR secure in their legal and ethical footing before they let Bob run the story. They need this, because reporting about touchy subjects can be legally very dicey.

    So what if the “publisher” isn’t in the news business? The student newspaper doesn’t exist as an independent entity; it’s a school function. The school is the “publisher”. The principal runs the school, and is held at least partially responsible for what happens at school sponsored events. If the hockey team is caught doing meth, if one of his teachers is caught in bed with the quarterback, it reflects on the principal. If it’s found the principal *condoned* either of them, he or she’d be in huge trouble.

    If the students wrote a defamatory story, it’d be no different; it’s the paper’s “publisher” – the school – that’s going to end up in the legal crosshairs.

    Bob – do you have the right to tell Bill Kling to butt out of your business?

    Why should the kidz in Faribault?

    If your story isn’t ready for your publisher to read, it’s certainly not ready for prime time.

  • Bob Collins

    It’s worth pointing out, however, that it’s not the principal who is responsible for the editing of the newspaper. The student advisor (a teacher) has that role.

    So, no, I certainly wouldn’t tell Bill Kling to butt out of my business but Bill Kling goes out of his way to stay out of the editorial process of the newsroom. There are editors and news directors who are responsible for that.

    The real story here isn’t between the students and the principal as much as it is between the advisor and the principal.

  • Bob can weigh in on this point, or any constitutional lawyer that hasn’t gotten sick of this, but I believe that if you are talking about a slander or libel, the success of the suit is largely contingent on the credibility of the source, the claims must be false, the claims must be known to be false and there must be malicious intent. I doubt this paper could fulfill even two of those claims.

  • Unfortunately, your first sentence is incorrect. Students – and teachers – do not lose their First Amendment rights or protection at the schoolhouse gate. At least according to the Tinker v. Des Moines United States Supreme Court decision. Yes, the US Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier – does grant school officials – under certain conditions – the right to review.

    It seems more information, and more expert sources, are needed here for an accurate and complete story. Hopefully, that information would also help those who have already commented better understand the issues at stake here.

    John Bowen

    for the Journalism Education Association

  • I am still curious as to why the students & Adviser refused to have the work reviewed by the Superintendent. Is there a difference between “reviewed by” and “approved by” in this situation? I understand the adviser objecting to her role being taken-over by someone else. After all, if the school board trusts her to do this, then they should let her get on with it.

    Even if the 1st Amendment rights are preserved, where can the school draw the line and say, “No”? There is much which is protected under this paradigm, which is – in my opinion – totally inappropriate for a school newspaper. Something can be true, factually documented, and still inappropriate in this situation: how to cheat on your homework or how to inject meth, for example.

  • Nikki

    Dont get me wrong I understand that the subject in which they were writing about wasnt the best choice but, I do think people have the rights and freedoms that need to be protected.

    I also just want to point out that just because someone is a teenager, or under 18 years old, it doesnt mean that we dont understand the consept of right and wrong. Yes, I know, we dont always make the “best decisions” but niether do all adults. We know that its wrong to write about how to cheat on homework(which we can do easily, we dont need instuctions on that), or how to inject meth (which offens me, just because Im a teenager DOESNT mean I do drugs, how sterio-typical)

    Anyways, I would also like to say, yes I am a 16 year old, teenage girl, and I do have rights! Whether you think I do or not, because I am under 18. I can think for myself, make decisions, and I can enjoy things just the same as any adult. I know i sound like that rebel teen without a clause right now but, I think I do have the right to write what my opinion is. I will listen to yours, just as I hope you will do with mine, and all other people out their. Remeber the article you read above is about freedom of the press/speech. How would you feel if you wrote, painted, or made something that was an amazing way to get important issues out to the public?


    I have read, with interest, the stories now appearing in the mainstream press regarding the issue of the prior review (and, ultimately, potentially, the issue of prior restraint) between The Echo student newspaper and the superintendent (and, soon, as of this writing, the Board) of the Faribault Public School system.

    Though I am now in my fifties, and my newspaper days are many years behind me, I remember them fondly as the most important and formative years of my life. I started out working for a college newspaper in the late 1970s. Watergate was fresh on everyone’s minds, and Woodward and Bernstein (whom Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee referred to as “Woodstein”) were the heroes of nearly every newsroom, either large or small, in the country. I could not help but notice, incidentally, that your site contains (as of this writing) an embedded YouTube video regarding the death in 2008 of Woodward’s so-called “Deep Throat” contact… suggesting to me that perhaps you think as much of Woodstein now as we did then. As role models go, you could do worse.

    I was on the City Desk at first, then became the business editor, and worked copy desk for a summer or two. I also worked, part-time, for the local city newspaper, and became a stringer (both photo and text) for the AP. It wasn’t much, in the master scheme of things, I realize; but I learned a lot… far more, in fact, than that for which I had bargained.

    Eventually, I moved over into the computer industry, and to management consulting; and so my newspaper days became an increasingly distant memory. But while I was in that line of work, I gained an understanding of the critical role of the press in our fragile democracy, and the importance of its absolute freedom to convey to its readers, without restraint, that which is provably true, which has helped to shape nearly all else that I have thought, said or done for more than three decades since. In my more than 52 (as of this writing) years of life, few things, I long-ago realized, are more important.

    I was lucky: I got my training from one of the best journalism schools on the planet; and I worked for a college newspaper which had, right in its charter, and by contractual agreement with the university, that it was completely independent of said university; that it was its own corporation with independent management that was (and remains) completely outside the control of the university; and that its continued free occupancy of its space in the university’s journalism building was always guaranteed, even if it wrote things about the university which said university would prefer that it didn’t. And, indeed, we wrote many things (always true, accurate and responsible things, mind you) about the university which its president several times tried to stop… gratefully, to no avail. He, too, asked to review pieces before they were published, and he was refused every single time. When he tried to punish us by refusing to be interviewed for anything, we simply wrote that he so refused, and that made him, and not us, look bad. And so, then, he relented. That’s how it all works… how it’s supposed to work… part of its magic. That priceless experience, and that laudable model, helped to form my sensibilities regarding the importance of a completely free and unfettered press pursuant to the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which is, to this day, at the very core of who I am as a citizen and as a person.

    Sadly, those who have not had a good (or, more often than not, any) journalistic training typically do not fully grasp the notion of such things as prior review and, worse, prior restraint; or the tremendous harm to our freedom and democracy which such things can never, ever be permitted to do. Your superintendent’s insistence on prior review was, as perhaps he did not (and does not still) realize, the first dangerously slippery-slope-like step toward the unconscionable harm to our very freedoms, as a society, posed by the hideousness of prior restraint. I suspect he has no idea just how inherently wrong he was (and remains, for as long as he maintains his untenable position) to so insist; and his shutting down of your student newspaper because of it, though admittedly a relatively small thing in the master scheme of all the world’s manifold problems, has equally inherent importance to the master scheme of our very democracy.

    At all costs, the superintendent and the school board (if it agrees with him) must not ultimately succeed. Though yours is just a small student newspaper, its troubling plight is coming to the attention of the world; and this is your newspaper’s critical moment on its stage. It is imperative that you do not take this moment lightly; and that you play to win. Though you are teenagers — mere children in the eyes of the law — this is a very adult battle which must be waged in very adult ways. If you do not already have an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, then please, I implore you, FIND ONE… and do it well before the upcoming school board meeting on January 26th. You may discover from experienced and sapient counsel that what the superintendent has done, and what the school board may endorse on the 26th, is prima facie unconstitutional… which means that your case may be capable of garnering both the attention, and the expeditious relief, of the courts through the work on your behalf of gifted legal counsel. Please seek and find some right now.

    It is both interesting and delicious in its irony that your case is unfolding in the very state where one of this nation’s earliest and most important prior restraint matters first occurred. In the case of Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931), the Court held that prior restraint was flatly unconstitutional except under extremely limited circumstances such as regarding matters of national security. That ruling remains the law of this land to this day; and there is nary a judge in it who would find that your newspaper’s investigation of one of your school system’s teachers constituted a threat to national security.

    This is a case which has the potential to set legal precedent across the entire nation. It must not be taken lightly. It is also an important potential learning tool and experience for all of this nation’s young people… a disturbingly full one-third of whom, according to a 2005 survey commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and conducted by the University of Connecticut, believe that newspapers should be required to obtain governmental approval before publishing stories. Even more astonishing and frightening, only one tiny percentage point more than half of those surveyed believed the opposite… only that tiny handful making-up a mere percentage point representing the sometimes inordinately influential difference between majority and minority opinion.

    The Constitution, by its First Amendment, grants to newspapers — even student ones — the absolute and inalienable right of free speech. Our nation’s body of defamation both statutory and case law imposes upon the press the appropriate counter balance of ensuring that said freedom is exercised in a responsible manner by requiring of the press that whatever it prints is provably true. Were that not so, then provable truth would not be an absolute defense to allegations of defamation. It is a time-honored and workable construct, crystalline in its elegance, integrity and inherent ability to bring fairness and balance to often difficult and uncomfortable situations for all sides of all issues, while simultaneously keeping the citizenry informed about them. At a time in history when the flag of this nation is among the most reviled and disrespected in many places on this planet, the basic construct of our precious press freedoms remain the envy of the world.

    A dangerous threat to those freedoms lies in this perhaps seemingly inconsequential matter between your little school newspaper and the relatively small Faribault school system. It is your responsibility to see to it that in the process of working through this thorny issue which seems, on its surface, only affect or to be the concern of those in your local community, harmful precedent which may have distressing ripple effects across all of this nation’s free press will not occur… and the very example which this nation has set for all others will not be tarnished. Even the management of Al Jezeera (CNN’s Arabic-language counterpart in the Middle East) cites the danger to the Arab-speaking world of any curtailment of its freedoms whenever Islamic religious leaders try to censor it; and Al Jezeera’s published code of ethics is as if lifted straight from the web site of any of America’s most respected news outlets.

    One of the things which makes a constitutional right inalienable is its existence and absolute enforcement by the courts even in the face of a majority of public opinion against it. The school board may ultimately agree with the superintendent; and, who knows, so, ultimately, may most of those in your community. If the earlier-mentioned poll is any indicator, only a tiny one or two percentage points likely separates your community’s public opinion in one direction from that of the other. The adults in your community need to realize, however, that in order for what the framers of our constitution had in mind to be both the law and practice of this great land, all press — even of the seemingly relatively inconsequential student variety — must be simultaneously both allowed and required to play by the same rules. A free press is not only a right, but also a responsibility… the exercise of which has consequences which the students who run and work for The Echo are not too young to learn. Those students will be best served if they can learn both the rights and responsibilities of a free and unfettered press in the real world. As we who both worked there, and who witnessed our so doing, learned from the freedom from university control at the college newspaper where I cut my journalism teeth some thirty-plus years ago, there is ultimately nothing to fear from a student press that is permitted to operate completely both freely and responsibly in an adult manner; requiring of it that it also face the sometimes difficult adult consequences of its having exercised that freedom. A greater lesson could not possibly be either taught or learned. The Faribault School System and the parents and other adults in your community owe to its students the opportunity to learn that lesson…

    …an opportunity which will be lost if The Echo ultimately loses this important battle which has such potential for adverse consequence in their very real and adult world far beyond.

    I most strongly encourage the superintendent of the Faribault School System — and if not him, then its board during its hearing on January 26th — to reverse its shameful position with regard to The Echo; and to teach, by so doing, the paramount lesson to its young people of the importance of a free and unfettered press… even when it’s only of the student variety… and even when it’s hard.

    Good luck to you all.



    Gregg L. DesElms

    895 Jackson St., #319

    Napa CA 94559-1321

    PHONE: 1-877-383-5148

    FAX: (206) 984-1288

    NOTE: Permission to publish the above is hereby granted under the condition that it is published in its entirety; and as long as credit to its author is clear, unambiguous, and conveyed as a by-line or in a manner commonly conveyed and/or routinely used by news and other publications and media outlets in the United States.

  • Leon Phelps

    Free speech does NOT end at the school doors! Collins, the very premise of your article is incorrect. Please educate yourself on the Tinker standard.

    Also, if a school publication is designated as a public forum, school officials CANNOT institute prior review. People, please familiarize yourselves with ALL of the laws surrounding the rights of student media, not just those small snippets that fit with your argument.