2012 NWSP letter to Bronco Blaze Staff…

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Dear Bronco Blaze staff:
Thank you for your recent questions regarding Oregon’s Student Free Expression Law. I have been following events at your school closely. I was also the one to post the stories on the Northwest Scholastic Press blog (nwscholasticpress.org). In the process of doing that, I have also contacted the Student Press Law Center, an excellent organization for students to utilize, and reposted their story on this blog.

First, let me tell you a bit about myself. I have taught high school journalism in Oregon for more than 31 years. I have been active in my teachers association on the local, state and national level on education issues and in getting pro-education candidates elected to office. I worked on both Oregon Education Association and National Education Association resolutions and was successful in leading the effort to get language (belief statements) that supported our efforts. I was also able to secure at the state and national level, with the support of my local association Portland Association of Teachers, language in legislative objectives that supported such an effort. These were important accomplishments in order for association staff to be able to help us on this issue. Prior to the 2007 session, I heard that Rep. Larry Galizio had submitted a proposed bill to protect students and advisers of public schools at the high school and college level and gave his office a call to offer my assistance and support.

I reached out to people I knew throughout the state, and was successful at recruiting a number of student speakers from John Day and other parts of Oregon. We had the assistance of the Student Press Law Center as well as assistance from the J-Ideas team headed by Warren Watson at Ball State University, who helped and encouraged us throughout the process. J-IDEAS is funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s High School Initiative and Ball State University.

We were from the beginning informed by the Oregon Constitution, which guarantees free speech to all people, not just “citizens” as in many other state constitutions. We also understand that students are one of many voices throughout the state, and journalism programs and publications should have the freedom to reflect the many ideas, opinions, beliefs and facts that shape them. Our goal was to continue the heritage of early Oregon newspaper pioneers of vibrant, robust discussion and exploration of the issues of the day. We particularly wanted to assure that all student speech be protected by focusing on allowing individual students to be able to express their opinion. We understood that across this state that meant that student editors could (and should) choose to publish a variety of opinions and cover a variety of issues from a variety of perspectives. Some of the students who testified said that law would protect students in more conservative communities as well as those with different religious, moral and ethical beliefs, as well as protect the editors who chose to have robust discussions about issues of the day.

The law was also to remove the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision from student publications in our state. When the legislature, both House and Senate, adopted the bill and when it was signed by the governor, it gave the following reasons for implementing it:

Whereas the Legislative Assembly finds that freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental principles in our democratic society granted to every citizen of the nation by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and to every resident of this state by section 8, Article I of the Oregon Constitution; and

Whereas these freedoms provide all citizens, including students, with the right to engage in robust and uninhibited discussion of issues; and

Whereas the Legislative Assembly intends to ensure free speech and free press protections for both high school students and students at institutions of higher education in this state in order to encourage students to become educated, informed and responsible members of society; now, therefore,

Be It Enacted by the People of the State of Oregon: (you can read the rest of the law at the following link)

http://www.nwscholasticpress.org/state-law/

In that spirit, I applaud your efforts to focus on what your editors believe to be inappropriate bullying and use of language via twitter.com during the school day, and for trying to shame the student perpetrators and their parents into more appropriate behavior rather than trying to ban the use of twitter altogether during the school day. Your article was professional and responsible and morally appropriate.

I also encourage you to use the provisions of the law to seek resolution through a local court with the assistance of the Student Press Law Center (http://www.splc.org/legalassistance/legal_request.asp) and Dr. Kennedy at NWSP, who is a First Amendment scholar and strong free speech advocate. Students should seek free representation through the SPLC. The law itself is printed on our blog under the First Amendment tab (see above). The law was designed to resolve issues in the court at the lowest level possible, and does not involve awarding damages of more than $100. It does require an affected student individually, or through their parents, to file a civil suit to obtain injunctive or declaratory relief as determined by a court and, at the discretion of the court, damages up to $100.

Here’s the remedy:

(5) Any student, individually or through the student’s parent or guardian, enrolled in a public high school may commence a civil action to obtain damages under this subsection and appropriate injunctive or declaratory relief as determined by a court for a violation of subsection (2) of this section, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or section 8, Article I of the Oregon Constitution. Upon a motion, a court may award $100 in damages and injunctive and declaratory relief to a prevailing plaintiff in a civil action brought under this subsection.

(6) Each school district that includes a public high school shall adopt a written student freedom of expression policy in accordance with this section. The policy shall include reasonable provisions for the time, place and manner of student expression.

Now I know that may sound scary, but the fact is this happens every day in courts across Oregon as a way of resolving issues where people honestly disagree so they can move forward. Student Press Law Center is ready, willing and able to assign an attorney at no cost to you to take this matter to court. We at NWSP and SPLC are ready to support you. We believe the law is clear, and that you as students have exercised your right under the law, and that the law does not allow your adviser or principal to censor the law except for the reasons stated in the law:

(4) Nothing in this section may be interpreted to authorize expression by students that:

(a) Is libelous or slanderous;

(b) Constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy;

(c) Violates federal or state statutes, rules or regulations or state common law; or

(d) So incites students as to create a clear and present danger of:

(A) The commission of unlawful acts on or off school premises; (B) The violation of school policies; or (C) The material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school. A school official must base a forecast of material and substantial disruption on specific facts, including past experience in the school and current events influencing student behavior, and not on undifferentiated fear or apprehension.

I believe and I am sure NWSP and SPLC concur that you are well within your rights to decide to cover this issue.

Naturally, a judge will look at existing law, to help make that determination. Your adviser has been an excellent guide and has instructed you well as to the definition of obscenity (which this is not), and your motives are pure in bringing this issue to light. I can tell you from experience that there are some words that when they are spoken can be offensive, but not nearly as offensive as when they are seen in print. But the fact that the word appeared in a photograph is important, because you didn’t use the word in your article, and your point was that this kind of language was wholly inappropriate, both from a bullying and a common decency perspective.

You asked for a bit of information about me, so here it is:

I worked on my high school and college newspapers and yearbooks. I am a University of Oregon School of Journalism graduate, 1976. I was a weekly and daily newspaper reporter and editor from 1972-1978. I went back to UO to do my teacher licensure work, and started working as a journalism and photography teacher at Roseburg Senior High School from 1979-84. I worked at Wilson High School in Portland for 10 years, and at Benson Polytechnic School for 16 years before retiring two years ago (2010). I now substitute teach occasionally for journalism and media teachers. From 2011-2012 I was Executive Director of NW Scholastic Press while UO searched for an SOJC Outreach Coordinator who would also head NWSP and assist the state journalism teachers with their organization, Oregon Journalism Education Association. I also attached a resume with more details. I currently serve on the NWSP Board of Directors and am editor of the NW Scholastic Press blog.

Hope this helps. I encourage you to take the next step and apply for legal assistance from SPLC using the link above. Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

Sincerely,

Rob Melton
Board of Directors
Northwest Scholastic Press

Related Links:
http://nwscholasticpress.org/category/oregon-student-free-expression-law/
Text of Oregon secondary school law: http://nwscholasticpress.org/2013/06/07/oregon-student-free-expression-law-public-secondary-schools/
Know The Oregon Law: http://nwscholasticpress.org/state-law/
Text of public college and university law: http://nwscholasticpress.org/2013/06/07/oregon-student-free-expression-law-public-college-and-universities/
Oregon case study: http://nwscholasticpress.org/2012/10/25/the-splc-news-story-oregon-high-school-students-ask-school-to-return-confiscated-papers/
NWSP’s advice in a letter to the Bronco Blaze staff: http://nwscholasticpress.org/2012/11/10/nov-10-2012-letter-to-bronco-blaze-staff/
J.D. McIntire testimony: http://nwscholasticpress.org/2012/03/23/sandy-hs-adviser-named-oregon-journalism-teacher-of-the-year-2012-2/
National Coverage stories: http://nwscholasticpress.org/national-coverage/
Oregon coverage stories: http://nwscholasticpress.org/oregon-coverage/
SPLC story: http://www.splc.org/article/2007/04/oregon-committee-debates-merits-of-student-press-freedom-bill?id=1490

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2012 NWSP letter to Bronco Blaze Staff…