Shawnee Mission school board approves updated student publications policy following ACLU lawsuit settlement

Former SM North associate principal Brock Wenciker speaking with student protesters April 20. He removed cameras from student journalists trying to document the unauthorized gathering.

Two months after the draft language brought forward for consideration by its policy committee led to push back from student journalists and district patrons, the Shawnee Mission Board of Education on Monday adopted an updated policy on student publications.

The district was required to update its student publications policy as part of its settlement agreement with student plaintiffs who, under a lawsuit organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, alleged that their First Amendment rights had been violated in 2018. The plaintiffs claimed that district officials had worked to censor student comments and hinder media coverage of the National School Walkout Day protests that came in response to the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

The updated policy language was supposed to affirm student journalists’ rights to cover events on campus, but the original draft of the update included a provision that granted the district to “limit controversial subjects if the District/school is sponsoring the speech, such as with student publications, if the content would substantially disrupt the ability of the District/school to perform its educational mission or is used to engage in bullying, cyber-bullying, the intimidation of another person or the material is obscene or libelous.”

Members of the policy committee said that clause was primarily directed at so-called “underground” publications, like The Eastonian at SM East, which had raised serious concerns by publishing highly derogatory comments about past and current students in 2016.

The updated policy approved Monday makes a clear distinction between school-sponsored publications and non-school-sponsored publications.

The updated policy is below:

Student freedom of speech and/or freedom of expression shall extend to students working as journalists on student publications in their determination of the news, opinions, feature content, advertising content, and the content of student publications.

Student publications may be distributed on school property during school hours in a reasonable time, place and manner designated by the building principal.

No publication or expression of matter by students in the exercise of rights shall be deemed to be an expression of school district policy.

School-Sponsored Student Publications

School-sponsored student publications are materials prepared and issued by students through a curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular program. Examples include a school newspaper or yearbook and may extend to displays of artwork when such artwork is available to the general population. Such publications can be hard copy, electronic or appear in social media; have a District staff member as an advisor; and utilize District funds and other resources.

Student editors and writers must observe the same legal responsibilities as those imposed upon conventional newspapers and communication media. No student shall distribute any school publication which:

  • Is obscene according to current legal definitions;
  • Is libelous or slanderous according to current legal definitions; or
  • Creates a material or substantial interference with normal school activity.

Ads concerning illegal drugs, any controlled substances, or any illegal activity are prohibited in school-sponsored student publications.

Non-School Sponsored Student Publications

Distribution of any non-school-sponsored publication may be halted if the material is vulgar, lewd, obscene, materially and substantially interferes with appropriate discipline in operation of the school, or impinges upon the rights of other students. Distribution in violation of this policy may result in suspension, expulsion, or other discipline of the students involved.

On-Campus Events Open to the Student Body

“On-campus events open to the student body” shall mean that the event takes place on school property and is open to the general student body of the school, or to all students of a particular grade or combination of grade levels.

Administrators shall not ban or exclude student journalists from on-campus events that are otherwise open to the student body, or confiscate student journalists’ equipment while they are attending such events, on the sole basis that they are student journalists.

Nothing in this policy or provision shall otherwise limit a District employee’s ability to apply Board Policies, implement discipline, or otherwise lawfully restrict student access to such events, so long as it is not solely based on a student being a student journalist.