BROOKE GLADSTONE: Forces in Washington are affecting not just what students see but what they can say! So much so that increasingly they are forsaking their school papers and taking to the Internet. The Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia recently published a cyber guide to advise young journalists on their rights and responsibilities on line.
When it comes to print, the laws are clear. In 1988 the Supreme Court ruled in the matter of Hazelwood vs. Krohmeier that school officials can censor any school-sponsored material as long as there's quote "a reasonable educational justification." On the Media's Alicia Zuckerman explains.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: The Hazelwood decision defines "reasonable educational justification" so broadly that it actually allows material to be censored if it's grammatically incorrect.
MIKE HIESTAND: You know and in many ways the growth of web sites and, and on-line expression has occurred because of Hazelwood.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Mike Hiestand is the Student Press Law Center staff attorney.
MIKE HIESTAND: We believe that the First Amendment should really have no age limit, and when they're away from school and on their own time and using their own resources, students should have the same right to speak their mind and have their voices heard as any other citizen.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: On the Internet freedom of expression isn't limited to students with good grammar or those who can afford their own printing presses. Last spring in Illinois young journalists at Hinsdale Central High spoke their minds and ran smack into Hazelwood. They had devoted an issue of their award-winning newspaper, The Devil's Advocate, to school violence. The cover depicted a faceless student with a gun coming out of a television. Before the papers hit the hallways, Principal James Ferguson gave the editorial staff an ultimatum. Seventeen year old Annie Gilsdorf, now the paper's editor in chief, was the project's lead writer.
ANNIE GILSDORF: The demands included removing all the illustrations which accompanied the story including the cover photo; removing a sidebar to the piece which was a comparison of our school and Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado and changing the title of a sidebar called Getting The Gun which was about gun laws in Illinois and the availability of guns to young people.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: The students decided not to comply with Ferguson's demands, and the papers were destroyed.
ANNIE GILSDORF: But we felt that we still had a, a powerful story to tell and that was-- it was important for the students to read the story -- even moreso following the censorship of the issue.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: So they did what any enterprising young people of the 21st Century would do. Informed of their rights by the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, they took it to the Web.
ANNIE GILSDORF: The Web made it very easy for us to get the story out there and allow people to see the information.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Hinsdale Principal James Ferguson turned down several requests from On the Media for an interview. He did tell the Chicago Tribune last spring that he based his decision on a fundamental issue of school safety and that he objected to the tabloid style of the photos and illustrations. But by all accounts Ferguson didn't have a history of interfering with editorial decisions. Attorney Mike Hiestand.
MIKE HIESTAND: I think what made this, you know, all the more troublesome for the students at Hinsdale, because they, they knew that they did good work and they knew what it was like to enjoy press freedom.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: About the time The Devil's Advocate school violence issue was pulled, a high school sophomore in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania was bypassing print and school journalism all together. Conrad Flynn and a few friends launched an independent web publication called The Babbitt covering their school and community. It had been up for less than a year when they scooped the local papers on a story about a group of teenagers passing counterfeit money around town.
CONRAD FLYNN: We ran that story on a Friday afternoon immediately after we got home from school. Two days before any other area publication was, was on it -- I mean commercial publications also.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Flynn says being both inside the school and on line gave The Babbitt the edge. The same freedom that allows civic minded students to get out from under the thumb of their schools is bound to appeal to kids with more sinister goals.
In a Dallas suburb, one teenager used an on line message board to urge a student suffering from multiple sclerosis to commit suicide unless the disease killed her first.
And last spring a web site called Interschool "Ho's" invited students to vote on who they thought were their most promiscuous classmates at elite New York City private schools.
Students' names and schools were posted as well as their supposed sexual exploits in rather graphic detail.
SUSAN FEIBELMAN: That particular web site was the 21st Century version of graffiti on a bathroom wall.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN:Susan Feibelman is the head of upper schools at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn; one of the schools named on the Interschool "Ho's" web site. Next year all Packer students in grades 5 through 12 will get lap top computers which they'll have with them day and night.
SUSAN FEIBELMAN: What's scary as a parent while other behaviors like drinking -- we've had experiences with that behavior ourselves, so we can make some predictions about what are the signs that we need to look for. What's happening with technology is children are light years ahead of their parents.
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: And when it comes to cyber graffiti, schools have no jurisdiction unless it's done on school property or time. Ultimately says Packer's head of school Geoff Piersen, this isn't an issue about technology. It's an issue about behavior. GEOFF PIERSEN: The reality is that what happens off campus affects what happens on campus. Now we can't discipline a student officially, but we can certainly make our opinion felt; we can talk to parents; we can talk to children and we can raise the issue. So I don't think in that sense it's new.
SUSAN FEIBELMAN: What are the limits of free speech in the school community?
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Susan Feibelman.
SUSAN FEIBELMAN: I think healthy school communities have that dialogue daily. So what it means is sometimes we're really uncomfortable!
ALICIA ZUCKERMAN: Attorney Mike Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center says it's important for students to learn that with freedom comes responsibility. But he adds it's equally important for schools to understand that the First Amendment is not optional. For On the Media in New York, I'm Alicia Zuckerman.