Shawnee Mission updates proposed student publications policy in response to patrons’ 1st Amendment concerns

Around 100 SM North students held an unsanctioned protest on the school’s front lawn in April 2018. Student journalists attempting to photograph the protest were told to stop, ultimately leading to a 1st Amendment lawsuit.

Following a wave of feedback to an original draft that raised censorship concerns, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education on Monday advanced updated policy language on student publications that integrated input received from students and patrons.

The district was required to update its policy on student publications under terms of the settlement agreement with plaintiffs who sued Shawnee Mission over alleged infringement of their 1st Amendment rights last year. That case, organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, stemmed from efforts district officials made to steer students away from mentioning gun control and to hinder student journalists from covering unauthorized demonstrations on National School Walkout Day in April 2018.

The settlement agreement had called for the district to clarify in its policy that student journalists had the right to cover events occurring on school grounds. But the first draft of the updated policy included provisions that seemed to reserve the right for building administrators to censor student publications.

Editors and reporters for high school publications across the district organized to voice their opposition to that provision.

The updated language presented at Monday’s board meeting removed the portion of the policy draft that had caused concerns, and more clearly spelled out the distinction between school-sponsored publications and so-called “underground” newspapers.

Mary Sinclair, the SM East representative on the board and a member of the policy committee that drafted the initial language, said that the part of the original draft that had prompted pushback was drafted in part to address The Eastonian. The long-running underground publication raised eyebrows in 2016 when an issue including derogatory and sexually explicit comments about current and former students began circulating.

Members of the board thanked the community for stepping forward to provide input and recommendations on revisions to the original draft. The board is set to take up a second reading and potentially vote on final language at its August 12 meeting.

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the ACLU case did contact the board last week after the updated draft was published, and request that the district consider a handful of additional tweaks. Among them would be the reinstatement of a provision that requires building administrators to provide an explanation for any decisions to limit distribution of a publication on school grounds. Such a provision is in the policy that stands on the books, but is not in the updated policy draft.