Freedom of press belongs to school, not student editors

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One of the most often quoted — and so often misunderstood — sections of the First Amendment is “freedom of the press.”

This misunderstanding has reached a boiling point as student editors of a newspaper in Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania are taking a stand for what they say are their First Amendment rights to set a policy banning the use of the school’s mascot (Redskins) in the publication.

While there are valid reasons to debate using or not using the term “Redskins,” the students don’t understand the real world of journalism. A truism in the business is the freedom of the press belongs to the person who is responsible for paying the bills and who will be held liable if the paper is sued. The publisher of a newspaper cannot be forced to print anything. Nor can he or she be prohibited from publishing what they want. But the publisher is responsible if the paper is sued for something it has published and as such has the final say.

In most high school newspaper situations, the publisher is the school, not the students.

That doesn’t mean the student editors don’t have any recourse to Principal Rob McGee overturning the ban. First, they have the right to appeal to the school board, which consists of elected members of the community whose job entails setting policy for the district. Ultimately, it is the school board who has the power to decide this issue.

If the school board sides with the principal, the students have the right to establish an independent publication that does not rely on the district for funds, equipment or distribution. That’s freedom of the press. That’s the First Amendment in action.

Many college and university newspapers — including The Pioneer at Whitman College — are set up so the publisher is a student board rather than the institution. This provides the newspapers the First Amendment right to set policy and to make content decisions. It also makes them responsible for anything they publish.

For a law firm to claim it is unconstitutional for the high school’s principal to override policy created by students shows a lack of knowledge of the First Amendment. Does this law firm truly believe the school has no authority over its own publication? If that were the case, there would be nothing to prevent students from publishing anything, regardless of how offensive, inappropriate or libelous. The courts would hold the district — not the students — responsible for damages.

Kudos to the students for grappling with the “Redskins” controversy and for taking a stand. But attempting to defend their act of civil disobedience as a First Amendment right is faulty.

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