By: Randy Dotinga
Do Press Freedoms Stop At Schoolhouse Door? p.8
Reports from around the U.S. indicate that school administrators routinely refuse
news reporters and photographers access to school facilities, teachers and students
Heather Svokos, a feature writer at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, didn’t give the photo assignment a second thought.
She was writing a story in January about the frenzy over the movie Titanic, so she assigned a photographer to shoot a picture of a group of teenage fans at a local high school, including a girl she had interviewed.
The principal sunk her plan on the spot.
“She maintained that the school could not be associated with an article that might provide promotion for a commercial venture,” Svokos recalled. In other words: Buzz off.
With a deadline looming, the newspaper ended up taking a photo of just one Titanic fan, off campus. “Obviously, it’s a frustrating obstacle,” Svokos said.
She isn’t the only reporter to have her plans thwarted by a principal. Across the country, school administrators are holding the line against journalists who want to come on campus and talk to children or take their pictures. “This is a very disturbing trend,” said Kyle Niederpruem, a reporter at the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News and a Freedom of Information expert for the Society of Professional Journalists.
Reporters say they have been kept off campus during emergencies and in cases when they only want to write harmless feature stories about, say, food in the cafeteria. “It can be a real pain,” said Linda J. Johnson, an education writer at the Herald-Leader.
Administrators limit access
Terry Francke, a media lawyer and director of the First Amendment Coalition in California, said he gets a dozen or more calls a year from reporters who have been booted from school campuses. He blames bad press for schools’ concern about the press. “It’s people reacting to paparazzi and the kind of pack or herd journalism that becomes evident with something like the O.J. (Simpson) trial. Those things have nothing to do with schools, but they do provoke more public criticisms. Administrators feel more confident in drawing lines.”
One of those empowered administrators runs a high school in Northern California’s wine country. Lars Christensen, principal of Napa High School, has no regrets about shooing reporters off his campus during a recent crisis. In 1997, one student from Christensen’s school died and 32 others were injured during a water-slide accident at an amusement park. The night of the accident, school officials met and decided to keep the press off campus the next day. “We wanted to heal in private,” Christensen said.
The school did set up press conferences where reporters could talk to students. “We didn’t feel like we were limiting information,” Christensen said. “We didn’t say, ‘Tough luck, get out of our face.’ “
While major newspapers did not protest, the local daily newspaper, the Napa Valley Register, was furious.
“The upshot is that the principal at Napa High School, in essence, became the chief of police,” said Randy Foster, city editor of the Register. “Law-abiding reporters were prohibited from doing their jobs. We faced criminal prosecution if we exercised our civil rights.”
But Christensen stands by his decision. “We couldn’t just have people walking around picking people off on the way to English class or the cafeteria. We control access on campus on a daily basis. We don’t allow unlimited, unfettered access to our students or teachers.”
California courts may soon decide if principals like Christensen have the right to tell reporters to go away.
The Sacramento Bee, the sixth largest newspaper in the state, is poised to take a local school district to court over the rights of reporters to enter school property.
California state laws appear to give journalists the freedom to go onto school campuses. The law says “outsiders” may be kicked off campuses, but specifically says journalists are not considered outsiders.
But in 1996, state Attorney General Dan Lungren ? now a Republican candidate for governor ? said the law doesn’t really mean that. In an advisory opinion in response to a state legislator’s question, Lungren said school administrators may require reporters to sign in and can also impose rules on them during school visits. Lungren said principals may throw out reporters “if their presence would interfere with the peaceful conduct of the activities of the school.”
Media lawyers say the opinion is confusing. For one thing, it isn’t clear about which laws give schools the right to kick out reporters, said Francke, the California newspaper lawyer. “It left completely unanswered the question of what administrators should do if they come across a journalist doing his or her thing without permission.”
There’s another problem. The attorney general’s opinion is not binding, Francke said. A judge may ignore it and decide the law means something completely different.
Newspaper court challenge?
That is exactly what the Sacramento Bee is hoping. City editor Joyce Terhaar said Lungren’s bulletin spelled trouble from the beginning. “We can pinpoint our problems precisely to the Lungren opinion,” she said. “The schools started becoming much more conservative in terms of press access when that came out.” In one incident, a high school refused to allow a reporter to talk to students on campus about an abortion protest on the sidewalk, Terhaar said. In another case, a reporter was kicked off campus for trying to interview members of a basketball team whose coach was accused of having sex with a minor.
In another incident, a reporter tried to interview students at a Davis school about yogurt after the federal government approved the food’s use as a protein additive in school lunches. The school refused. “They said we couldn’t talk to kids about yogurt or anything else,” said Bee education editor Lisa Lapin. The Bee’s biggest beef is with the San Juan Unified School District, which serves 48,000 students in suburban Sacramento. The district is considering a strict policy limiting the rights of the press.
Among other things, the policy would require all reporters to be escorted while on campus. Reporters would be forbidden from asking students about sensitive subjects such as religion and sex.
“The school district feels we have an important role and responsibility in being charged with the education of students and with their safety and protection while they’re on our campus,” said district spokeswoman Christine Olson.
“The conflicts typically occur when the news media is interested in interviewing children on topics that we can’t talk to them about or are totally unrelated to what we’re doing at school,” Olson said. “In those cases, the news media has the option of interviewing the students off campus. Schools become a very convenient place because young people are congregated there. It doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate.”
But the Bee doesn’t agree. Negotiations between the school district and the newspaper are continuing over the proposed new policy, but the Bee is ready to sue if it is approved as is.
“We think it’s a very important issue, not only for us but for press access to school campuses throughout the state,” said managing editor Rick Rodriguez. “We’ll go to court and we’ll challenge it all the way. It’s a very clear issue from our point of view. We have every right to find out what’s going on in schools and not be controlled in the manner that folks want to control us.”
Other school districts have embraced policies limiting the rights of the press. In Lexington, Ky., last August, the county school district banned all photographs of students at school unless parents had signed permission slips. The rule applied to everyone from newspaper reporters to yearbook staffs to parents taking snapshots at school plays.
In a scathing editorial, the Herald-Leader called the policy “out-of-focus” and “neurotic.” Parents angrily protested about losing their right to take their own photos, and the district backed down. But the district still bans photos by the media unless parents give permission.
Johnson, the Herald-Leader education writer, said the policy has prevented photographers from taking several good shots because school officials had to run and check if permission slips were on file. Meanwhile, she still encounters principals who don’t want her on campus, photographs or no photographs.
While resistance may be futile, she plans to keep protesting. “What we’re trying to do is get people into the story, and not just write it from the administration’s or faculty’s point of view. We want to get the kids’ point of view,” she said.
Reporters like Johnson may not have much of a legal leg to stand on. According to media attorneys, California is the only state that addresses the rights of journalists to go on campus.
“Generally, journalists’ rights to enter schools are exactly the same as those of the general public. They are no less and no greater,” said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Unfortunately, the trend is toward greater closure.”
The new policies are harmful because they prevent journalists from reporting on a body of government that spends taxpayer money, she said. “The public has an interest in what’s going on on a day-to-day basis. There’s a need for independent oversight.”
So what is an education reporter to do? Talking to kids outside of school is perfectly legal, but isn’t always an ideal approach, especially if deadline is right around the corner. It also prevents reporters from seeing a school in action. “It will never be as effective as physically entering the campus,” Kirtley said.
Bill Hirschman, lead education reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, has advice for reporters who want to prevent access problems, especially in case of an emergency.
Hirschman often writes about major school controversies. Seeing him armed with a notebook and pen, skittish principals sometimes will tell him to leave. “When I walk in the door, the odds are strong I’m not there to write about the bake sale,” he said.
Hirschman recommends that editors and reporters meet with school officials to figure out the limits before the next emergency on campus. “Sit down with them and say, ‘All right, sometime in the next year or two we’re going to have two or three crises. Let’s talk about how we all want to deal with this together.”
Johnson added that who you know ?and what they think of you ? can make all the difference in getting onto a school campus to interview children.
If you know a sympathetic principal, she said, “you can walk in and find kids. And life is good.”
?(Police restrain Mary Anigbo, principal of a Washington, D.C., charter school, after rejecting a Washington Times reporter on an unannounced visit. Anigbo was convicted of attacking the reporter and two cops.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Napa Valley High School principal Lars Christensen defends barring the press from campus after an accident last year killed one student and injured 32. He said the school needed to heal privately, and officials provided access to students at a press conference.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Sacramento Bee city editor Joyce Terhaar said that after an advisory opinion from California Attorney General Dan Lungren, “The schools started becoming much more conservative in terms of press access.”) [Photo & Caption]
?(Dotinga is an education reporter with the North County Times, Escondido, Calif.) [Caption]
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 23, 1998) [Caption]