Pressing the Point Student journalists have ally in Michigan State law clinic

 by John Foren

Legal News
The high school yearbook staff uses a photo from a student’s Facebook site, showing teens holding open beer cans. The girl’s mother isn’t happy and threatens to sue for copyright infringement and invasion of privacy.
A high school principal removes a story from the student newspaper in which police reports were used to detail a traffic accident involving a student on lunch hour. 
Another principal deletes telephone numbers of pregnancy counseling and abortion-providing groups accompanying a teen pregnancy  story in a student magazine. 
Student publications can be a barometer of greater free speech and free press issues facing society. That’s why leaders of the Great Lakes Student Press Law Clinic at Michigan State University are passionate about what they do. 
The clinic is a joint project of the MSU College of Law and School of Journalism and is affiliated with the Michigan Interscholastic Press Associa-
tion (MIPA). It provides advice to students and advisers caught between their rights as journalists and the demands of school administrators nervous about a story or photo. 
“It’s doing important work,” says Sue Carter, co-supervisor of the clinic, an MSU journalism prof with a law degree, and is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.
“The nexus between journalism and law is a fascinating one for me.” 
Volunteer law students and professors give students a step-by-step guide on challenging a school’s decision: Have they met with the principal? Have they read school board policy on how much leeway administrators have over publications? 
The project, which began in 2004, is now branching out beyond student journalism. 
The clinic is helping defend a Yemeni woman from Michigan and small on-demand publisher in Indiana against a lawsuit from the woman’s family over a new book in which she contends she was brutalized while growing up, a case pending in U.S. District Court. The clinic is interested in the free speech implications and may begin helping other small publishers who cannot afford legal aid.
The project also has been involved in proposed state legislation protecting student press rights and has written amicus briefs to support free student press in other states, as well as approximately two-dozen cases over the years involving censorship, libel, privacy, copyright, Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings provisions. They have involved high schools and colleges throughout the state, including West Bloomfield, Novi, and Flint. 
None have gone to court. Court cases are too lengthy, especially for students on their way to college. Most of the cases involve answering questions from students and advisers and writing legal memos directed to administrators.
Officials expect the clinic only to get busier as the Internet provides a spate of new press freedom issues. Administrators seem to be taking a harder line on student publications thanks to industry groups pushing uniform, conservative policies. 
“I think we’re living in a society where some people are saying the school board should tell students what to write. Why?” says Cheryl Pell, MIPA director. “Once you start taking freedoms from anyone, the rest of us aren’t far behind.” 
The student press cases aren’t easy to pursue, notes Nancy Costello, an MSU law school professor and former reporter who also supervises the project. 
It takes guts for a teenager to take on adult administrators, she says. Some will lose interest as they graduate, and parents have to be on board. 
Fighting for student journalists is about more than getting a story in the paper, Costello says. These young reporters and editors often are more interested in the Constitution and civic affairs than other youngsters and may be headed into politics or legal careers.
Organizers are talking about setting up workshops on the First Amendment for Michigan high schools and spending more time teaching students directly about their press rights. The clinic also may survey school districts on their press regulations in an attempt to promote more flexibility, Costello says. 
“In some cases, you see where a student posts something on their own blog or Facebook site that’s highly critical of a school administrator,” she says.  
“What First Amendment right does the student have in posting this? … Can schools sue? … It’s interesting because they’re kids. The question is, who’s a journalist?” 
The Great Lakes Student Press Law Clinic was started by Jane Briggs-Bunting, former dean of the MSU School of Journalism and an attorney., on the heels of a celebrated case in which the superintendent of the Utica Community Schools pulled a story from the student newspaper about a man who claimed his lung cancer was caused by exhaust fumes from the district bus garage. 
The student sued the district, claiming her First Amendment rights were violated. A federal court agreed, saying the district illegally censored the story. 
Briggs-Bunting says she regularly advised high school students on such cases in the past, and made starting the clinic a priority when she came to MSU. 
She says what’s getting censored by school districts is “ridiculous.” 
“I think there’s a perception by principals and school superintendents that papers and yearbooks should be a public relations vehicle for schools, that it should be the good-news press only,” Briggs-Bunting says. 
But shouldn’t administrators have some authority over what goes in a school-funded publication? 
Not necessarily, says Briggs-Bunting, noting that some school newspapers are supported 100 percent by outside advertising. 
She agrees the clampdown from administrators is getting worse based on the frequency of queries.
That has implications for journalism as a whole, Briggs-Bunting says.  “If you’re only covering the lunch schedule and not the health department’s report on health standards, it’s irrelevant.”