Archive for March, 2007


Sex, students, free speech — and a VERY special offer

Something tells me I wouldn’t have lasted very long as a high school newspaper adviser in East Allen County, Ind., and Danbury, Texas, where school administrators are aghast that budding journalists would want to cover issues of sexuality.

Apparently, these fine educators would rather run roughshod over the First Amendment than devote time to fostering a public forum where students discuss and debate matters they’re talking about — and talking about nearly nonstop.

But hey, it’s so much easier for educators to clamp down on student media through censorship, prior restraint and adviser suspensions than it is to recognize in a socially redeeming way that running around on campus every day are students who abstain from sex, students who have more sex than rabbits, students who are pregnant, students who are parents, students who have had abortions, students who are gay, students who think they’re gay, students who have been raped, students who are sexually abused at home and students who daydream about (or are actually having) sex with their teachers.

School district officials in both states have compounded their sad policies with even worse behavior during school board meetings. When parents and students attended a meeting earlier this week in Indiana, they weren’t allowed to speak (Students were prepared to read a letter I wrote offering SPJ’s assistance — and they were told they couldn’t.). In Texas, board members closed to the public their meeting concerning the Danbury High School student paper. The school board has been sued by the local paper, The (Clute, Texas) Facts, for allegedly violating the state’s open meetings law (I’m sending out a giant thank you to that publication …).

There are much smarter ways to handle these tired disputes, and it’s way past time for some educators to think more creatively and collaboratively about how to teach students to deliver responsible journalism and to engage thoughtfully in ensuing discussion and debate. If that responsible journalism and thougthful discussion involves parents and community leaders, even better!

So, here’s my offer (academics, please do me the favor of passing this around far and wide): The Society of Professional Journalists is willing to take on one school district in the nation that wants to take a bold stand to improve and protect student journalism. SPJ has dozens of seasoned pros who would be willing to work alongside students, teachers and school administrators to craft policies and practices that work well for everyone. SPJ’s goal would be to devise a model that districts across the nation would be eager to follow.

To be frank, we’ll be looking to help a district that isn’t already on solid ground (because there are many districts out there with smart policies and thriving student media). Ideally, the district that wins SPJ’s assistance will be able to cite conflicts or problems much like those that have erupted in Indiana and Texas (and despite their recent bad behavior, I’m still hoping to hear from officials of those Indy and Texas school districts).

Teachers and school administrators wanting SPJ’s assistance should state in no more than 700 words how and why they hope the Society will help them. They should send their requests — under the subject line “Help for Students” — to me at ctatum@spj.org.

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Indy educators outfoxed by j-savvy students

I’m cheering for students at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School, who are publishing a newspaper on the Web rather than honor a prior-restraint edict issued recently by the school’s principal. (For background, see the (Fort Wayne Ind.) Journal Gazette.)

Might online publishing be the future of high school journalism — especially at schools where educators don’t appear to value a free student press?

This is another one of those sad (and predictable) cases where a student writes about a sensitive issue (this time, it was an opinion column urging students to be more tolerant of homosexuals), and a principal swoops down from the rafters, insisting that he must review every edition of the student paper before it is released.

How do the school’s administrators and teachers justify their incredibly poor attempt to manage student media? The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which, they clearly don’t understand. As Adam Goldstein, an attorney at the Student Press Law Center, rightly noted in the Journal Gazette, the Woodlan dispute does not fall under the high court’s precedent. The Hazelwood ruling permits a school to interfere with student expression only when it can provide a legitimate educational reason for doing so. In Hazelwood, school officials proved that student articles in question went against what was being taught in the classroom.

“If (Woodlan) students are not being taught tolerance in the classroom, their problem is much larger than this particular incident,” Goldstein told the Journal Gazette.

Amen.

There is a better way to resolve this dispute than to subject these student journalists to prior restraint. I drafted a letter on behalf of SPJ that was distributed tonight during a meeting of the East Allen County (Ind.) School Board. The Society stands ready to help educators craft a model system for managing student media.

I hope they’ll accept the offer. If they don’t, I wholeheartedly support those clever students who are taking their journalism to the Web.

The letter:

Ladies and Gentlemen —

Writing on behalf of the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest journalism-advocacy organization, I offer resources and assistance to Woodlan Junior-Senior High School and your school district. If we work together, your district’s student news organizations and their management could become a model for school districts nationwide.

The Society considers it critically important for students to learn how to gather the news and express opinion ethically, accurately and fairly. Student journalists should be encouraged to ask hard questions and to tackle difficult subjects within the framework of responsible journalism.

Educators demonstrate more skill and talent — and earn much more respect — when they steer student journalists through sensitive journalistic endeavors. Banning and censoring content and demanding prior restraint are easy and lazy ways for educators to handle student media. Surely, Woodlan Junior-Senior High School — and the entire school district in which it is a part — has the talent and resources to teach First Amendment principles more wisely. This dispute has certainly presented a golden opportunity for this school and this district to establish management guidelines for student media that are emulated by districts far and wide.

Unfortunately, all we’ve seen so far is just another power struggle where educators clamp down on student media just because they can. What a shame.

Fortunately, there is time for more levelheadedness to prevail. The Society of Professional Journalists has dozens of veteran journalists and journalism educators standing by, ready to help make sense of this situation and to devise solutions that work for students and educators — solutions that are more consistent with our First Amendment freedoms.

I hope you’ll team with SPJ. Please contact Executive Director Terry Harper at (317) 927-8000 or tharper@spj.org.

Sincerely,

Christine Tatum
National President, Society of Professional Journalists
Assistant Business Editor, The Denver Post

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Keeping my arrogance in check

To be SPJ’s president is to agree to have your e-mail inbox pummeled every day.

I try to stay on top of the deluge, but tonight, I got side-tracked by a simple and poignant request from David Hughey of San Angelo, Texas, father of Iraq War deserter Brandon Hughey.

Some passages from David Hughey’s message:

Dear Ms. Tatum,

I read your recent column about open government and a reformed FOIA and decided to write to you. I hope you do not mind, and I hope you do not hit the delete key. I occasionally write to people whose names I find in newspaper articles, etc.

I am not a lawyer or a politician, and you will note, if you read any of my essays, that I am just the father of a kid who decided to leave the military rather than go to Iraq, and in a futile gesture, I have requested that my great government assign his contract to me.

I research and write about our Constitution and justice and I send these essays to anyone who might be interested in reading them. Anyone receiving anything I write is then free to pass it on if they see fit.

My son went to Canada rather than go to Iraq and is listed as a deserter from the United States Army. Not being a brilliant man, obviously, since I probably influenced his decision to join the Army, all I could see to do at the time my son deserted was to write a series of essays with unimaginative titles …

I take a liberty and attach the first three essays in the hopes that you might read them, and I will send the remaining essays next week. I am not a professional journalist, and even though I did major in journalism, I have not been able to master the art of “tight writing,” you might say.

If I was a professional journalist, I would be interested in the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government as I do not quite understand why a democratic institution such as ours must be run in secrecy.

I realize that asking a professional journalist to read an essay written by an amateur is, indeed, asking a lot, and I do not know if you would have any interest in commenting on my son’s predicament, but it does not cost me anything to send an e-mail. If you do read anything I have written, any comments would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your valuable time.

Sincerely,

David Hughey Father of Private Brandon Hughey, U.S. Army Deserter

I’m not going to comment on Brandon Hughey’s decisions or his legal battle (which, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is headed to the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal).

But I do want to comment on David Hughey’s request for my “valuable time” because his message is a potent reminder of how arrogant and dismissive journalists can be (and that most certainly goes for me, too).

I know. I know. You don’t have to be SPJ’s prez to be inundated with e-mail. And phone calls. And snail mail. And faxes. And cocktail conversation. Our job is to be out and about and to cut through spin and noise.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of that spin and noise tiring — and annoying — some days. Over the years, I have become good friends with delete keys and trash cans. Much of what I have pitched has been utter drivel. But over the years, I am sure I have failed to pursue important stories because of my impatience with folks such as David Hughey, who, indeed, has not mastered the “art of tight writing.”

Shame on me.

Had I not spent some time with David Hughey’s voluminous writing tonight, I would have missed important perspective on the Iraq War from a man who anguishes over having signed the papers that allowed his son to join the U.S. Army at 17. I would have missed the perspective of a staunch Republican from Texas who believes the Iraq War has been a huge mistake.

And I would have missed reasoning backed by historical and philosophical references you won’t find in just about any publication or broadcast.

David Hughey clearly has spent days examining his beliefs about this war. In just one essay, he mentions Sir Winston Churchill, Newsweek, Leon Festinger (who introduced the “communication theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957″), the U.S. Constitution, coverage of a Senate debate in the Congressional Record, the Federalist Papers, the anti-Federalist Papers, the Uniform Code of Military Jutice, at least two speeches delivered by Abraham Lincoln, Swiss philosopher Emerich de Vattel and his Law of Nations, the Bible, John Jay (the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), Mikail Gorbachev, Daniel Webster and passages taken from son Brandon’s high school history book.

Let’s just say it’s hard to fault David Hughey for failing to provide context — the kind of context far too many news organizations have failed miserably at providing in their coverage of the Iraq War. We journalists should give more historical perspective. We should present more than the typical blue vs. red, liberal vs. conservative, fight vs. flight rundowns of the battles being waged.

Quickly dismissing the need to tie current events to the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers — or even the Uniform Code of Military Justice (“But that stuff isn’t the news!” you might say.) is foolish — and arrogant.

David Hughey has convinced me that I have some reading to do.

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Expect diarrhea

OK, so I needed an eye-catching headline to encourage you to check out this important announcement:

Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times is offering two people a chance-of-a-lifetime trip to Africa. He’ll choose a university student (graduate and undergraduates are eligible to apply) and a middle or high teacher to join him.

Don’t expect comfort as much as diarrhea, he says. And don’t think you’re going to practice tourism, he adds. You’ll be practicing journalism via blogs or vlogs set up on nytimes.com and myspace.com. Read the blog of last year’s winner, Casey Parks.

Then check out the contest’s rules — and note that the deadline to enter is April 6, 2007.

Why the heck is Kristof doing this? Here are a couple of passages from his detailed explanation:

“I originally decided to hold this contest because I thought that plenty of young people tune out a fuddy-duddy like myself but might be more engaged by a fellow-student encountering African poverty for the first time.

“Frankly, I’m hoping that you’ll be changed when you see a boy dying of malaria because his parents couldn’t afford a $5 mosquito net, or when you talk to a smart young girl who is at the top of her class but is forced to drop out of school because she can’t afford a school uniform. I’m not saying you’ll turn into an aid worker – but I’m hoping you’ll carry the memories through your life and let them affect your priorities.

“What’s more, I’m gambling that your thoughts and reactions on this trip will make powerful reading to others. I’m a jaded traveler at this point, but you will bring something that I’ll never bring again to my reporting trips: fresh eyes.”

Get cracking with that application — and good luck!

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Sunshine Week: This year’s a biggie!

I wrote this column for Sunshine Week and am incredibly grateful to the dozens of newspaper editors who have agreed to run it this week on their Op/Ed pages. The column appeared today in The Denver Post and the Chicago Sun-Times. Plenty more will follow Tuesday and Wednesday. If you’d like to use this copy, feel free. All I ask is that you alert SPJ Communications Director Beth King at bking@spj.org.

This week promises to be a big one in the never-ending fight to improve access to federal government records.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on the Freedom of Information Act amendments of 2007, which stand to be the most comprehensive reform of the act in more than a decade. On Tuesday, a bipartisan-backed Senate version of the reform bill — which mirrors the House proposal, lobbyists say — is scheduled for introduction. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to conduct a hearing on the measure Wednesday.

FOIA, as it is commonly called, is one of the most powerful tools Americans have to supervise the inner workings of their government. The act has been revised several times since its passage almost 41 years ago, but its gist remains the same: The public benefits when government conducts its business in the open.

Are you thinking that journalists are the only ones bothering with government documents?

Think again. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government analyzed 6,439 FOIA requests to 11 Cabinet-level departments and six large agencies in September 2005.

The review found that more than 60 percent of the requests came from commercial interests, with one-fourth of those filed by professional data brokers working on behalf of clients wanting information such as asbestos levels on old Navy ships and background data on prospective employees.

The second-largest group of requesters — categorized as “other” and composed mostly of private citizens — comprised a third of the total number of requests. Those people included a movie producer doing research for a film about Guantanamo Bay, a divorcee searching for hidden assets, UFO enthusiasts seeking evidence of alien visitations, a lawyer trying to find parents overdue on child support payments and genealogists digging up family roots.

“Media” requests accounted for only 6 percent of the total.

Given the public’s appetite for government records and federal agencies’ notorious request-backlogs and stonewalling, even congressional lawmakers realize something must be done. The House bill wouldn’t affect exemptions, such as national security and privacy, that allow the government to withhold documents — but it sure would change the way government handles FOIA requests. Among the specific reforms, the bill would:

  • Pressure agencies to respond to requests in a timely manner. Agencies failing to meet the 20-working-day deadline would have to waive search and copying fees.
  • Require agencies to set up FOIA hotlines and tracking systems that help the public follow up on requests.
  • Create an independent ombudsman post within the National Archives to help those filing requests to resolve disputes without resorting to litigation.
  • Make it easier for requesters to recover attorney fees when litigation is unavoidable.

    If approved, the bill also would reverse draconian policy established and staunchly backed by the Bush administration.

    In 2001, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal officials to look for legal grounds on which to deny FOIA requests rather than to presume the public has the right to the information it seeks. In 2005, President Bush issued an executive order requiring agencies to take several steps aimed at streamlining the handling of FOIA requests — but he let Ashcroft’s edict stand.

    The timing of the president’s order was interesting given that bipartisan support was building for a much more stringent act proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Cornyn and Leahy plan to reintroduce the Senate version of the FOIA reform bill this week.

    “The Bush-Cheney administration sent a powerful message government-wide with the Ashcroft policy in 2001,” Leahy said shortly after the president’s order. “The policy says, in effect, ‘When in doubt, don’t disclose, and the Justice Department will support your denials in court.’ It undermines FOIA’s purpose, which is to facilitate the public’s right to know the facts, not the government’s ability to hide them.”

    When reacting to Bush’s order, Cornyn, a GOPer from the president’s home state, chose his words more carefully. “…More remains to be done to ensure that American citizens have access to the information they need and deserve,” he said.

    The president’s order has amounted to little more than window dressing, which is hardly a surprise given its Ashcroft underpinning. It’s time for Congress to step in and ensure the timely release of public documents — perhaps in the spirit of President Abraham Lincoln who said, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.”

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    Illinois coming to its senses?!

    Thank goodness the Illinois legislature is considering the College Campus Press Act, which would bestow “public forum” status on student-produced campus media at state-supported institutions. Consider reading the bill.

    If this thing passes, it could help (at least in Illinois) undo some of the damage done to student media by the terrible Hosty v. Carter decision, which extended limits imposed on high school students to college-student journalists. That awful court ruling affects students in the 7th Circuit — which covers Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

    Folks who are watching this matter closely for SPJ tell us that the bill could come up for a vote in the Illinois senate next week. And get this: Legislators speaking on background say they’re being lobbied to vote the bill down by representatives of “big universities.” Fancy that! “Big universities” that obviously don’t appreciate a free press. Wouldn’t want to attend them. (Unfortunately, there are plenty of universities that just don’t get it. )

    SPJ is sending a letter — pasted below — urging lawmakers to support the bill. Ditto for journalism students at Illinois State University, who have launched a letter-writing campaign (good for them).

    If you’d like to make some noise, too (and why wouldn’t you? Consider it your GREAT deed for the day), send a letter ASAP to Illinois Sen. Susan Garrett, who introduced this bill. Bet she’d be surprised — and pleased — to hear from journos across the nation. You’ll find her contact information below.

    And here’s that letter, crafted quickly and skillfully by Chicago Headline Club member Jon Seidel of the (Gary, Ind.) Post-Tribune (Thanks, Jon!):

    March 7, 2007

    Sen. Susan Garrett
    29th District
    129 Capitol Building
    Springfield, IL 62706

    Dear Sen. Susan Garrett,

    We write to lend the support of the Society of Professional Journalists and its largest chapter, the Chicago Headline Club, to Senate Bill 729, which you introduced to the Illinois General Assembly last month.

    On behalf of the Society’s 9,000 members — more than 500 of whom live in Illinois — we also want to thank you for authoring a bill designed to protect the First Amendment freedoms of college journalists. Please include this letter as part of the record as this bill moves forward.

    Collegiate journalists have the opportunity, rare among their peers, to practice openly in their field of study before they begin their career. This work teaches them the responsibility and good decision-making they will use later, as professionals, when they cover significant events at the local, state and federal level.

    When college administrators rob them of these rights early in their training, they are robbing the public of the quality journalism that is so essential to a healthy democracy.

    Unfortunately, this right has been compromised by recent court decisions, including a decision by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hosty v. Carter. This decision permits prior review and restraint of college student publications, and it sets a dangerous precedent for future rulings.

    Illinois has a chance to become a leader in collegiate student press rights with the passage of this bill. This piece of legislation grants no protections to speech not protected by the U.S. Constitution, nor does it place any legal responsibility on the shoulders of college administrators. Instead, it establishes all college media as an open forum, and it holds editors accountable for what they publish.

    Senate Bill 729 correctly recognizes the value of an open student media as a training ground for the journalists of tomorrow.

    Our gratitude extends to Sens. Dale Righter and Bill Brady, who have co-sponsored this legislation. We commend all of you for your commitment to college press freedoms, and we wish you the best of luck as this bill moves closer to becoming law.

    Sincerely,

    Jason Jedlinski
    President, Chicago Headline Club

    Rich Brust
    Vice President, Freedom of Information, Chicago Headline Club

    Christine Tatum
    National President, Society of Professional Journalists
    Past President, Chicago Headline Club

    cc: Sen. Dale Righter, Sen. Bill Brady

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    Kill the Kyl Amendment!

    Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) appears to be determined to criminalize the leaking — and publishing — of classified information. The Senate could vote as early as this week on what amounts to a backdoor approach to an official secrets act.

    Here’s some brief history for you provided with help from Pete Weitzel of The Coalition of Journalists for an Open Government, of which SPJ is a part:

    Sen. Kyl tried unsuccessfully to ram his proposal through the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last week by attaching an amendment to an unrelated bill on data mining. The bill was postponed in part because its sponsor considered the amendment unfriendly (no kidding). Never mind that Kyl tried to sneak in his proposal without any public hearings or discussion about this matter.

    When the committee route didn’t work, Kyl rewote the amendment and resubmitted it as a floor amendment to Senate Bill 4, which would enact recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. That bill could be voted on this week.

    What’s especially galling is that Sen. Kyl seeks to use this parliamentary move to avoid airing his lame-brained idea during a full public hearing. Who needs thoughtful debate and discussion about whether any new law involving leaks is needed? Apparently, not him.

    The modified amendment is not as sweeping as the earlier version, but it is still dangerous to a free press and the public’s right to know what its government is doing in its name. The new amendment would make it a crime to leak or “publish” any classified information contained in reports provided to Congress.

    Even as modified, Weitzel says, “the amendment is a dangerous overhaul of the espionage statutes and dramatically lowers the buden that the government must meet to prosecute a government leaker. Instead of proving, as required by current law, that the individual has reason to believe the information could be used to the injury of the United States, the government would only have to prove the individual used the information ‘in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States.’ This lower standard could lead to a chilling of daily communications between the government and the media.”

    Indeed.

    Kyl’s amendmet would make it a crime to “publish” any classified information in reports provided to Congress. Here’s just one example of how that could hamper the public from holding government accountable:

    Let’s say a particular U.S. port or airport is vulnerable to a terrorist attack because local officials have failed to provide adequate security. Reporters who spill those beans could be prosecuted for informing the public of the risks to their safety.

    The Sunshine in Government Initiative — another coalition of which SPJ is a part — has prepared some interesting talking points for everyone wanting to know more about Kyl’s proposal (Please note that the last one is mine):

    The Kyl Amendment should be rejected because it is a radical — and backdoor — overhaul of the espionage statutes, which strike a delicate balance between national security and the First Amendment.

    The Kyl Amendment would make it a crime to leak or “publish” any classified information contained in reports Congress receives under three acts, the Improving America’s Security Act of 2007, the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

    There are at least some 28 reports to Congress required by these statutes. The reach of the amendment is astonishing. It would make it a crime to leak — or publish — “any classified information contained in” one of these reports. Because it sweeps in information “contained” in the reports, it also covers any document anywhere that “contains” that information.

    Before enacting such a sweeping amendment, Congress must make the case to the general public the information in the reports required by the statutes has leaked and caused harm to national security. Congress should also explain why the Justice Department is unable — under existing law — to prosecute an individual who leaks classified information contained in those reports.

    The Kyl Amendment also raises the possibility of prosecuting the media. The plain language of the amendment makes it a crime to “publish” any classified information in the reports.

    The Executive Branch routinely overclassifies vast amounts of information. This amendment reaches into deepest recesses of the executive branch and gives bureaucrats who may want to cover up their mistakes more power to protect that information with the criminal law.

    The Kyl Amendment dramatically lowers the burden that the government must meet in order to prosecute a leaker. Instead of proving, as required by current law, that the individual has reason to believe the information could be used to the injury of the United States, the government would only have to prove that the individual used the information “in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States”. This much lower standard would raise very fundamental constitutional questions, and such a major change in the criminal law should not be enacted without hearings.

    There is no evidence that this amendment is needed. Attorney General Ashcroft, in a report to Congress in March 2002, stated that the existing espionage laws were adequate.

    Congress has no business voting on a matter as serious as this without conducting more research and inviting public debate and discussion.

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