The web brings the world to your school, but now educators are finding out that it works the other way, too. With more web sites handing your students a virtual worldwide soapbox and megaphone, some schools are wondering if they have any control left over what their students are saying on the internet.

One online high school newspaper called the Bolt Reporter, written by students across the country, has devoted its “Banned on Bolt” section to controversial stories‹many of which have been censored from the writers’ own school papers.

Launched last October, Bolt Reporter is an offshoot of Bolt.com, a free online service for teens. Funded through advertising, Bolt Reporter tackles subjects that might be considered too sensitive in a traditional school setting. Stories slated for March‹all written by high schoolers‹include “Virginity‹is it really an option?” and “Assuming a secret identity: Fake IDs, alcohol, and teens.”

“The internet is a giant underground electronic newspaper,” Ann Brick, staff attorney for the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, told eSchool News. Brick said students are using the internet to express themselves in ways that traditionally haven’t been allowed in schools, making editorial decisions, even making mistakes. And she applauds it: “In the area of school newspapers, administrators have been unwilling to take advantage of that kind of experience, which is really too bad.”

Banned on Bolt

“Banned on Bolt’s” first story, a report on a Naperville (Ill.) North High School teacher accused of sexually abusing a student, reportedly was censored from the school’s newspaper, the North Star. “When a teacher is fired from working at a school, the student body has a right to be informed,” wrote Adrian Holovaty, North Star’s editor-in-chief and a Naperville North student, in her “Banned on Bolt” article.

Holovaty and five other school reporters wanted to clear up the rumors buzzing around their school. They gathered facts about the teacher’s dismissal, but were told by the principal they couldn’t write anything concerning “student-faculty relations.” Plus, the principal said, he wanted to protect the rights of the girl involved.

The reporters pressed on, writing a short, factual, yet sensitive account that made no mention of the girl’s name. They approached the superintendent, but he supported the principal’s decision not to run the story. So the students took their case to the national media‹where the “Bolt Reporter” weighed in on the students’ side.

Elizabeth Hurchalla, senior producer for Bolt.com, said the “Bolt Reporter” site empowers teens by offering them a venue to express their views online. “Kids can speak out about the issues affecting them without having to worry that their views are controversial or don’t fit their school’s agenda,” Hurchalla said.

Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier

The debate about students’ rights to free speech has persisted for years. Now the internet has opened a new battleground for the debate.

Because a public school is a government institution, it falls under the aegis of the First Amendment. Yet as an educational facility, a school is responsible to its community and is held to the community’s standards of decency‹particularly for its children.

The precedent commonly used to decide when a school has the right to censor its students is the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The Hazelwood standard allows school officials to censor a school-sponsored publication or organization if they can show they have a “valid educational purpose” and the censorship is not intended merely to silence an unpopular viewpoint.

But Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), pointed out the Hazelwood standard is far from perfect.

“The problem with Hazelwood is that it’s an objective standard,” Goodman said. “It’s also not very clear.”

The Hazelwood case upheld a Missouri school’s right to censor stories about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children from a school-sponsored student newspaper. The court ruled that the school paper was not a “forum for public expression” by students, and thus the students’ First Amendment rights did not apply.

New learning opportunities

Brick sees enormous potential for the internet‹which is precisely a “forum for public expression”‹to teach students about the responsibilities that come with free speech.

“None of the justification that has been raised to allow censorship apply [on the internet],” Brick continued. “The imprimatur of the school is on the school newspaper. But that isn’t an issue when the kids are using the internet at home.”

Brick advocates the kind of learning experience provided by the internet‹one where students are allowed to be autonomous, use their own judgment about what is appropriate and what is not, and make mistakes that they can learn from.

Not every school official would agree, however. The New York Times ran a story last week highlighting student web sites that cast schools in an unfavorable light.

One example cited by the Times involved a middle school student in McKinney, Texas, who was transferred out of his computer lab for publishing a site called “Chihuahua Haters of the World.” The school was besieged with protests from animal-rights activists as a result of the site.

“This was a bizarre intrusion on his free speech rights,” Ann Beeson of the ACLU told the Times. “It was a web site created off campus, completely unrelated to school, and he has every right to announce to the world that he goes to that school. It doesn’t give the school any right to exert any power over his web page.” The courts agreed and ordered the school to reinstate the student’s access to the computer lab.

Though legal cases of this nature are still relatively new, Goodman believes the standards of Hazelwood will be what determine whether a school has the right to censor a student’s web page. “Only if it’s a school-sponsored medium‹like a school’s web page‹and the censorship is judged to be for an educational purpose would such censorship be allowed, if at all,” Goodman said.

Bolt Reporter
http://www.boltreporter.com

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

Student Press Law Center
http://www.splc.org

New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com