Protecting scholastic journalism

I don't know if Churchill County Judge William G. Rogers used to be a high school journalist, but he certainly demonstrated an understanding of the importance of a free student press when he threw out -- make that catapulted so far away that it can't be seen -- a teacher's lawsuit last week.

Rogers was reacting to a music teacher's claim that she was defamed in the Churchill County High School student newspaper, The Flash. Some parents had accused the teacher of irregularities in choosing audition tapes for a choir presentation. The Flash did what good student newspapers do and wrote about the flap, which had all the elements of a segment of "Glee" except for the show's great music.

The teacher's union, which should be helping students learn rather than obstructing them, first tried to block distribution of the paper. When a courageous principal and superintendent refused, the teacher filed suit. Rejecting the lawsuit Tuesday, Judge Rogers found flatly that the teacher "has failed to demonstrate any genuine issue of material fact."

Even more significantly, he cited again and again the importance of a good student newspaper: "The court ... finds that the publication of these concerns by a student author/editor in a student newspaper serves to communicate this information directly to ... administrators."

That's what good student newspapers in high school and college do: They point out to administrators, parents, students and others whether problems exist in the school. Of course, they have to do it accurately. In this case, the judge used the word "truthful," or variants of it, again and again to describe the story. In fact, if I were author Lauren Mac Lean, I would put this sentence in big type on my resume: "There is not a single sentence contained in the school article which is false or known by any ... defendant to be false." (Lauren will be a freshman journalism major at UNR beginning this week.)

That's what good scholastic journalism is: Fair, accurate and aggressive reporting about issues that matter to the school community. Judge Rogers' decision recognized and applauded that kind of work.

The only thing that could be better would be for the Nevada Legislature to codify Judge Rogers' beliefs. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says that seven states, including California, protect student journalists and their advisers through legislation. (I am on the board of the center.)

The laws enable students "to edit their own publications free from reprisals, with the fail-safe that adults may always intervene on the rare occasion that student writings break the law or threaten to disrupt school operations."

LoMonte calls students "the ultimate 'embedded journalists' and in an increasing number of school systems today, they are the only journalists regularly monitoring the performance of the schools."

He cites a student newspaper investigation of bullying at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts -- five years before a student committed suicide because of bullying. No one else was in a position to warn about the bullies. But at many high schools, such a story would have been censored because it might make the school look bad.

Judge Rogers was incisive enough to recognize the purpose of high school journalism: "One of the many purposes of the student newspaper (at Churchill) is to communicate about issues of concern to school district officials, as well as to students and their families."

Not every judge, principal, superintendent or school board believes in that definition of high school journalism. A state law would give them the courage to do the right thing.

Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno and former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News.