Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Who You Can Talk To

The N-S's Sheena Dooley writes about an interesting story involving student journalism over at South Side High School.

Two media-law attorneys say that South Side High School Principal Tom Smith violated the First Amendment rights of his school’s journalism students when he restricted whom they could interview for stories.

In a memo dated May 24 obtained by The News-Sentinel, Smith told journalism teacher Greg Jones, also adviser to the student newspaper: “You are to direct your students NOT to call any adult employee of FWCS (Fort Wayne Community Schools) who works outside South Side High School for any reason related to the journalism classes at South Side High School without first receiving permission from me.”

School administrators can censor the content of student publications if it is for educational reasons, such as omitting material that isn’t appropriate for certain ages, said Steve Key, an attorney for the Hoosier State Press Association, a nonprofit group representing 164 Indiana newspapers.

I was the editor of my high school paper, and I can sympathize with the plight of journalists-in-training like Jonathan Batuello, who "prompted" the memo, it seems, by calling Superintendent Wendy Robinson's office to get a comment on the district's plans to convert Geyer Middle School into a magnet school.

FWCS officials announced their intentions for Geyer on May 13 in The News-Sentinel and The Journal Gazette, the same day Batuello said he first asked to speak with Robinson.

Her secretary, however, told him Robinson wasn’t ready to talk about the plans with the media, Batuello said.

Three days later, on May 16, the student said he called Robinson again after seeing one of the newspaper articles and spoke with the secretary, clarifying what the story was about and questioning Robinson’s reason for not talking to him.

According to the principal’s memo, the secretary said Batuello demanded Robinson return his call at a certain time, which Batuello denies.

In the memo, the principal describes the student’s behavior as unacceptable. “It is imperative that students also learn no source (including any employee of FWCS) is required to give information to, or interview with, the student press,” the memo states.

Batuello and the paper’s former editor, Mike Sanserino, who worked with Batuello on the Geyer story, said they never demanded Robinson return their calls at a certain time, only giving the secretary times when Batuello could be reached.

Unlike professional journalists, Batuello couldn't take a return call from Robinson -- which likely would never have happened, anyway -- if he was in another class, so informing her secretary of when he would be available would seem to me like a reasonable thing to do.

But it's clear that someone at FWCS (Robinson?) didn't want students like Batuello calling up the superintendent to comment on district-related issues for their high school paper. I doubt very much that this was about Batuello's "behavior" toward the secretary; after all, the memo wasn't about proper phone ettiquette. (And for him to be picked as editor-in-chief for the coming school year says something about teachers' opinion of his disposition.)

So should a principal be able to put restrictions on whom someone like Batuello can call? I don't think it serves any purpose other than keeping Batuello from hounding Robinson. But she's got a secretary, right? Who gets paid to take her phone calls, right? So it's not like it's affecting Robinson's ability to do her job. And if she doesn't want to talk to Batuello about the plans for Geyer, she doesn't have to -- a "no comment" would suffice.

And if Batuello had been rude on the phone, I bet a lecture from the district superintendent would have set him straight...

ALSO: I think Jon Batuello ought to get himself a blog, to let us all know what's going on at South Side, unfiltered. (Before his principal issues a memo banning that, of course.) If you know him or his family, pass this along.



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