Kate Karstens, a senior at Falls Church’s George Mason High School and editor of its student newspaper The Lasso, backed by a strong contingent of fellow students and other members of the community, took a seat at the microphone during the petition period of Tuesday night’s Falls Church School Board work session and read a strong written statement urging a change to the board’s policy 9.46 that, she said, “condones and encourages censorship.”
While the board offered no immediate response following the presentation, the board’s vice chair John Lawrence (in charge of the Tuesday meeting in the absence of chair Justin Castillo, who listened in by phone) issued a statement to the News-Press yesterday that stated, “I can only speak for myself, but I’d say it’s safe to say that everyone on the board is happy to see students taking an active interest in not only their schools, but school policies as well. We haven’t had a discussion as a full board about whether or not to take this up, but I would support doing that.”
The large contingent that packed the small Central Office conference room where the board often holds its work sessions included an initial student support contingent of Sierra Sule, Nhari Djan and Liam Bridge, as well as the Lasso’s faculty adviser, Mason English teacher Peter Laub.
While Policy 9.46 ostensibly states that articles in the student paper requiring approval from the school principal before publication should be limited to those about the death of community members, criminal activity, discipline, drugs, sex, alcohol and violence, it was noted that articles last year on student absenteeism and graffiti were also censored.
“Falls Church City takes pride in their students, as they should. It’s difficult, however, to hear administrators talk about how proud of us they are, when they have no trust in us to publish our own perspective without approval. Give us a reason to make you proud. Trust your students and trust this paper,” Karstens concluded her statement.
She and her Lasso supporters also submitted a written proposed substitution for the current Policy 9.46 that states, “Students of Falls Church City Public Schools shall have the right to exercise freedom of the press including, but not limited to, the publication of expression in school-sponsored publications and other news media.”
Excluded from this proposed new policy would be content that would be obscene, libelous, slanderous, an “unwarranted invasion of privacy,” or what could be construed as inciting students “as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts, violation of lawful school regulations or disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”
Otherwise, however, it states that “student editors of school-sponsored media shall be responsible for determining the news, opinion and advertising content of their media,” and “no student media, whether school-sponsored or non-school sponsored, will be subject to prior review by school administrators.”
It adds that “no expression made by students in the exercise of free press shall be deemed to be an expression of school policy, and no school officials or school district shall be held responsible in any civil or criminal action for any expression made or published by students unless school officials have interfered with or altered the content of the student expression.”
Finally, it adds a cautionary sentence: “Any student, individually or through parent or guardian, or student media adviser may institute proceedings for injunctive or declaratory relief in any court of competent jurisdiction to enforce the rights provided in this section.”
In its written form, Karstens’ statement included a list of 23 “community members” who “have pledged support,” including Laub and Debbie Hiscott, executive director of the Falls Church Education Foundation.
Karstens noted that currently Policy 9.46 holds the school district responsible for “any and all mistakes made by students,” and for any legal action. “Under the policy I have written, the responsibility of the paper is taken away from the school and placed in the hands of the students,” under the supervision of the adviser, adding, “For the record, there has never been a recorded case of a high school newspaper that has a policy of free press being sued.”
She noted that Northern Virginia’s Chantilly High School “has been operating under a free press policy for five years, and that Vienna’s Madison High School won the fight for press freedom last year. Student newspapers in every public school in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Illinois and California enjoy the free press right.
National organizations like the Student Press Law Center, Journalism Education Association and National Coalition Against Censorship, which published online an interview with Karstens last summer, all encourage the free press policy in high schools.
Karstens was an intern at the News-Press last year, and Laub worked as a Mason student at the News-Press in the 1990s, and following his graduation from LaSalle University, for two years full time at the News-Press. Last month, he was among the Mason teachers honored for reaching the five year milestone as an educator in the system.
In his response yesterday, Vice Chair Lawrence added, “We need to realize that we have to balance freedom of speech, our obligations to students who are, in most cases, minors, and our basic mission to nurture students who actively engage both in school now and for the rest of their lives.”
In examining the policy, Lawrence wrote, “I’d start by looking at how and why it was used in the past and I certainly need a good grounding in our legal obligations on this matter to students, teachers and the division as a whole.”