The Seattle Times' Opinion on "Public Forum" Student Papers


"But we say again it is a risky thing to give legal control of a high-school newspaper to students."

Seattle Times Editorial

What is a "limited public forum" anyway?

public forum is set aside as a place for legally protected free speech (the only exceptions would be for legally defined obscenity, libel, slander and hate speech). Generally, a public forum might be at a street corner, park or neighborhood.

Either a forum is public or it is non-public. Public means people can say what they want as to content and non-public means that the right to edit for content is retained. A non-public forum has not been opened up for indiscriminate free speech. 

Sometimes the public forum is "limited" as to timeplace and manner of expression, but not as to content (except illegal speech). Such a forum becomes a limited public forum. The limitations cannot be for bias or appropriateness or vulgarity. An example would be limiting comments to one person speaking at a time or that the forum is open only to adults. If there is editing for content, the forum is still "non-public."

As a side note: Tinker v. Des Moines adds another safeguard for public forums at schools that material can be edited if it would cause a substantial or material disruption. This additional safeguard applies to actual physical disruption, not simple shocking of the students with vulgar or disturbing articles. Tinker would still permit the following because they would not physically disrupt classes or instruction--though they would be inappropriate for adolescents.
  • pornography (full nudity or photographs of people having sex)
  • terrorist propaganda or recruitment
  • profanity (in a true public forum bleeping would be illegal unless the actual student author wrote the bleeps himself)
  • threats (if there is not immediate intent to do harm)
  • detailed descriptions of how to obtain and use drugs without getting caught
  • explicit/graphic sexual diaries
  • encouragement to commit crimes
  • personal verbal attacks (including vulgar and offensive language) against teachers, administration, students and anyone else (as long as it does not include racial slurs or other legally defined hate speech)
  • suicide notes 
A true "limited public forum" newspaper would allow all submissions (exceptions as noted for public forums) and would not edit these for content or substance. The "limits" set could be limited to "students only" but not to age-appropriate material or to prohibit promotion of drugs or alcohol (just one example).

The JagWire (at the heart of the Puyallup, Washington, court case) parallels The Squall in so many ways (but I think that is another page that's being written). Although The Squall claims to be a limited public forum, it actually is not a public forum, limited or otherwise.*

And unless the Board of Education  knowingly and willingly gives it's authority to the students and journalism teacher by re-writing the bylaws, The Squall is operating outside the bounds set by the school district. The current "open forum policy" at the DHS paper is a renegade endeavor defining itself by what it wants to be rather than what it actually is. (I'm guessing to obtain protections it desires, but does not actually have.)

C.W.

*The editorial page of The Squall states that the editors reserve the right to edit submissions for content. That makes it a non-public forum and forces the paper to abide by the Hazelwood standards.

*For The Squall to be a limited public forum, the school must clearly give up its right to edit for content. This right can be reclaimed at any time, as long as it is indiscriminate as to content (meaning they retake the right to supervise, not just throw out a single article they don't like).

*Although the journalism teacher and principal claim to have given up these rights (in personal statements and by practice), the board of education has retained these rights as stated in their bylaws. The rights cannot be given away without permission.

*A limited public forum may not discriminate as to subject matter including "promotion of drugs or alcohol." Unless the bylaws are rewitten, the school board may control inappropriate content or prohibit certain subjects such as the promotion of drugs or alcohol (just one of several restricted topics stated in the bylaws).