Student journalists have an ally at MSU law

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 story about teen pregnancy 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 also is affiliated with the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association.

It provides advice to students and advisers often 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, an MSU journalism professor who has a law degree, is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, and is co-supervisor of the clinic.

"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.

The clinic is interested in the free speech implications of the case and may begin helping other small publishers who typically cannot afford legal aid. The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

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.

In all, the project has been involved in about 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 some colleges--throughout the state, including West Bloomfield, Flint, Midland, Novi and the Lansing area.

None have gone to court. Court cases are too lengthy, especially for students soon on their way to college. Most of the cases involve answering questions from students and advisers and writing legal memos directed to principals and superintendents.

Student press officials expect the clinic only to get busier as the Internet provides a spate of new press freedom issues. Administrators also appear to be taking a harder line on student publications thanks to industry groups pushing uniform and 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? Do you want a lively newspaper?" says Cheryl Pell, director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association.

"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 Detroit Free Press 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, a fact school leaders are aware of, Costello notes. Plus, 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 and other important fields.

"That's one of the reasons journalistic programs are so great to support," she says.

It's hard to say how much success the clinic has had. 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 over this? ... 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.

It came 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 when she was on the faculty of Oakland University. She 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.

" ... Everybody's so worried about their image. The superintendent doesn't want the call from an angry parent threatening to sue."

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 and worse based on the frequency of queries from student journalists.

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."

Published: Thu, Jun 10, 2010