Internet access and safety
Today’s student journalists must learn to navigate and produce online media. The choice is clear — provide an educational environment in which students learn to use the Internet with adult facilitation, or leave students to educate themselves with no such guidance. Because the First Amendment protects Internet freedoms in much the same way it protects print media, it is essential for administrators to understand the boundaries of the law.

Understanding filters
The Children’s Internet Protection Act mandates filters in public schools, although many administrators are unaware CIPA also allows for their removal in certain situations. Use in journalism programs should be one of those exceptions because filters often block relevant research material and prohibit students from learning online responsibility.

A 2011 Federal Communications Commission update to CIPA requires schools to educate minors about appropriate online behavior, social networking sites and cyberbullying.  Scholastic journalism programs offer the perfect venue for exploring these topics and learning acceptable online etiquette.

Many administrators believe installing filters is a sufficient protection for students. In reality, Internet filters do not block all possible inappropriate material and are likely to prevent access to relevant information, especially considering many school filters accidentally or purposefully block medical, political and religious material. This could be detrimental to student journalists who often rely on Internet research to jumpstart the editorial process.

Jon Katz, a First Amendment scholar and columnist for the Freedom Forum, said people should not minimize concerns about pornography or inappropriate material, but also “cannot expect a filter to replace education, morality and responsibility.”

“It’s an adult’s responsibility to teach moral direction and monitor learning,” Katz said, including educating teachers and students on how to use the Internet. He also suggested physically placing computers in the classroom where anyone could see what’s on the screen.

Misconceptions about Internet filtering
According to a published 2011 interview with Karen Cator, then director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, administrators often misinterpret CIPA parameters. Cator, now president and CEO of Digital Promise, cleared up some of these misinterpretations in her interview with MindShift, a technology and education blog:

  • Accessing YouTube is not a violation of CIPA.
  • Sites blocked for students need not be blocked for teachers.
  • Broad filters are harmful; filtering should be targeted and nuanced.
  • Schools will not lose funding by unblocking sites.

The case for removing filters for journalism programs
Schools using Internet filters should consider implications raised by Ann Symons, 2011-2012 president of the American Library Association. If the school (government) blocks sites, it becomes responsible for the problems encountered, Symons said. No blocking means no legal responsibility, just as in print media.

Other views from the ALA:
●      Those who develop filters impose their viewpoints on the community.
●      Filters give a false feeling of safety but can be manipulated and circumvented, leaving the school responsible.
●      Legal advice that advocates compromising the First Amendment is misguided.

In accordance with Acceptable Use Policies, scholastic journalism programs with an online presence help students develop not only the technical skills required to use the Internet effectively, but also the personal moral imperatives to do so in an ethical way.

Effective AUP’s should describe how and why students are able to use the Internet. See the appendix for an AUP model.

Student media on the Internet
Legal issues also arise when students use the Internet to publish. The Student Press Law Center reports online publications face stricter scrutiny from administrators than traditional print publications because of the potential for websites to reach a larger audience.

Publishing student names and photos
Schools have no grounds for concern that publishing names and faces presents liability risks. Names and faces are available to those outside the school in the library, local professional media outlets and other places.

Online media do not pose any more danger than their print-based counterparts, and no legal requirement exists for schools to prohibit online publication of student names or photos. Where newsworthy information — including student names and photos — is lawfully obtained and accurately reported, it is not an invasion of privacy for student journalists to post such information on the Internet. Parental consent is irrelevant.

Neither is it a violation of FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The Department of Education has made clear news that students report is not equivalent to the school’s release of educational records. The idea of a newspaper without names or other identifying information strikes at the core of journalistic integrity and a free, accurate, robust press.

Such practice is also legally quite risky. A policy that requires incomplete identification of news subjects is troublesome. Reporting, for example, that an unnamed tennis player was kicked off the team for illegal drinking could subject student media to a libel lawsuit by the team’s nine other players who were not drinking.

Another consideration is the ramification of restrictions. If student media can’t use names or photos, would other sites tied to the school — such as a PTA home page — have the same restrictions? Not printing names would mean good news about students, teachers or administrators could be eliminated as well. That includes scholarships, touchdown passes and national awards.

One of the most pressing concerns regarding student use of the Internet is cyberbullying. Easy to access and instantaneous, online platforms can help bullies destroy reputations – and lives – in a matter of minutes. Internet filters cannot completely eliminate cyberbullying because the proliferation of mobile phones, tablets, laptop computers and other devices gives students the ability to see – and do – whatever they want on their own time.

A proactive approach to cyberbullying is to educate students on responsible, mature online behavior. Student journalists assist in this effort by modeling such behavior through their unrestricted use of social media, blogs and other tools as part of the reporting and publication process. They also can help instruct the school community on online media topics by hosting workshops and other learning opportunities (see a sample lesson for planning school-wide social media outreach).

Immediacy of publishing
Online news requires the same attention to detail and professionalism as any other medium. Checking sources, verifying information and knowing legal and ethical standards are still best practices for Internet publication.

Material on the Internet is not free for the taking. The same copyright rules that protect printed material also protect all images, graphics, sound and text on the Internet. Merely citing sources is not the same as obtaining permission to publish.

Role of the adviser
The role of the adviser in Internet publishing is the same as that of print and broadcast advisers, as the Journalism Education Association’s Model Guidelines explain.

See also:
Supporting student media with technology and finances
The value of using social media in journalism
Content development from start to finish
First Amendment and student media
Journalism ethics at center stage
School boards and student media
Differences between law and ethics
Yearbook ethical guidelines for student media
Online ethical guidelines for student media
Visual ethical guidelines for student media
Definitions of prior review, restraint and forums
Which type of forum best serves your students and community
Importance of open forum status
JEA Adviser Code of Ethics
Internet freedom of expression
Why avoiding prior review is educationally sound
First Amendment Press Freedom questions

Student Press Law Center Model Guidelines for High School Student Media