The president of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association said that reports of student journalists’ photo equipment being confiscated by an administrator at SM North on Friday raise concerns about violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act of 1992.
KSPA president Jessica Bowman, who spent 15 years advising student publications at Canton-Galva High School before moving to her current role at Hillsboro High School, said the organization’s review of the actions toward student journalists suggested associate principal Brock Wenciker crossed a line.
“If the situation occurred as reported, then the students faced interference in their gathering of material, which would appear to be a preemptive attempt to suppress student coverage,” Bowman said.
The Kansas Student Publications Act gives administrators the right to “regulate the number, length, frequency, distribution and format of student publications,” and allows intervention to prevent the publication or distribution of material that could be libelous, slanderous or that “promotes conduct that is defined by law as a crime or conduct that constitutes a ground or grounds for the suspension or expulsion of students.”
But the law explicitly protects students’ ability to report on even controversial topics.
“The liberty of the press in student publications shall be protected,” reads the act. “…Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”
Bowman said that the confiscation of reporting equipment because the nature of the event being covered — an unauthorized protest by SM North students — was controversial would constitute a violation of the act.
“KSPA’s position would be that, if indeed the situation occurred as it’s being reported, if an assistant principal tried to prevent the coverage just because it was controversial, that would be explicitly contrary to the student publications act,” she said.
SM North junior Grace Altenhofen, a member of the school newspaper staff who raised concerns about the situation before the Shawnee Mission Board of Education Monday, said Tuesday evening she had reached out to the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., and had spoken with one of their attorneys about the possible legal issues involved. Altenhofen said North students were still awaiting word on what consequences, if any, students who participated in or attempted to cover the unauthorized protest will face.
“There’s still no word on whether the district is going to punish the students involved,” Altenhoefen said.
Bowman said she hoped the the school district would use the situation as an opportunity to educate staff about student journalists’ rights.
“KSPA would encourage the district to further investigate this event and we would encourage them to use this situation to have an open discussion, and really to allow education on student press rights in Kansas.” Bowman said. “They have an opportunity to champion their scholastic journalists.”
A video shot on a cell phone by an SM North student using Snapchat appears to show Wenciker taking a student journalist’s camera Friday: