Special Feature: Interview with Brian Schraum
Sam (henceforward NSNS): In my blog, I reported on efforts to counteract the effects of Hosty vs. Carter. When he was attending Green River Community College, student journalist Brian Schraum tried to get his school to implement an anti-censorship policy. When they refused to do so, he took his fight to Washington. Olympia, Washington, that is. He helped introduced a powerful anti-censorship bill that extends protections to high school students as well as college students. Schraum is now a student at Washington State University. NSNS sat him down for an interview:
NSNS: So you're at Green River College, and you want an anti-censorship policy. What made you push for one, and what was the administration's reaction?
Brian Schraum: After the Hosty case my thinking was that we should do something at my school to be preemptive, so we drafted the policy and brought it to school officials. At first they seemed pretty upbeat about it, but then they consulted with their lawyers and backed off of it, so it died. I was frustrated and knew this representative from a story for the paper I worked on. I talked with him and we came up this bill.
NSNS: Were you planning on writing articles that the administration would take offense at?
BS: I didn't have this grand plan that I was going to start writing things they would dislike. It was a philosophical, First Amendment-type thing. Initially they were supportive of the concept, but once they started talking to their lawyers they were torn between what we were saying and what I would consider to be bad advice from their attorney. He said we couldn't possibly be a forum because students were earning credit for working on the paper.
NSNS: Can you explain the legal concept of a forum?
BS: In Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier in 1988, the Supreme Court said the level of control officials have over a paper depends on whether the paper can be considered a public forum. This gave high school officials the prerogative to decide whether or not to let student editors make content decisions. If school officials have a standing policy of reviewing student papers, then it isn't a public forum. What Hosty did was apply that same analysis to college newspapers.
NSNS: How did you decide to take it to state level?
BS: I got frustrated with the [administrative] process that was going on. The more I got thinking about it, the more I realized that if you leave this decision up to school administrators, they'll err on the side of retaining their power—because it's in their interests to be able to control what people are hearing about their schools. The only way we were able to make progress on this was to take it to the state level and take this decision out of their hands. The First Amendment was designed to take this decision out of individual peoples' and states' hands. Hearing about the censorship in high schools made me want to take action. That, and knowing this representative [Dave Upthegrove’s (D-Seattle)], who is down to earth, the youngest guy in there. He took it and ran with it
NSNS: How active are you in its passage through Washington State Government?
BS: I'm not a politician; I'd be a horrible politician. The bill will be heard in committee on Friday, so I'm going to be testifying. There are 11 members in the committee and four are cosponsors, so I think the odds are good in that part of it. We have bipartisan support. Our Republican Attorney General is supportive, as well as a number of Democratic legislators. Everybody recognizes this thing will live or die based on the high school component of it, how far school officials are willing to go to oppose it.
NSNS: If high schools risk killing this bill, why did you include them?
BS: When I worked on my high school paper, even though I didn't have any censorship problems, there was always that assumption that if you get a little too out of hand you'll get shut down. If you go to the Student Press Law Center [www.splc.org] you'll see case after case of administrations going after papers. It was common sense for me. If you're going to have personal amendment protections, they should be for everyone. You shouldn't get into that game of “First Amendment applies here and not there.” The First Amendment applies to everyone.
NSNS: Do you think administrations should be allowed any control over student newspapers?
BS: There are things like libel and invasion of privacy that we hold everyone to. No one would be opposed to authorities coming in in those cases. In those limited cases, sure. Otherwise you've got a situation where the government (public school officials) is censoring journalists (public school journalists).
NSNS: Should private schools be held to the same standards?
BS: No, the bill deals only with public schools. Public school officials are government officials, private schools are private entities. California is the only state in the nation that deals with censorship in private schools. It would be biting off more than we could chew to go after them.
NSNS: How should the distinction be made between the "official" and "independent" school newspapers?
BS: I'm personally opposed to the term "official" school newspaper. It’s debated whether the school owns the newspaper and owns the speech. “Student newspaper” in the traditional sense means you've got students getting together on campus in a classroom with an advisor provided by the school, and kids can usually earn credit. At independent newspapers the students are not involved at school, they're not accepting any school funds, and they're not necessarily getting support from a faculty member.
NSNS: What roles do you think [student newspapers] should be filling?
BS: It's within the rights of anybody who wants to, to go out there and start a publication. The role of a student newspaper is to be a respectable media source, doing all the things that professional papers are doing and serving as a learning experience for students who are going to go out there and be professionals about this. One of the most valuable things you can get in education is that real-life experience. The primary difference would be that traditional student newspapers are more for providing an educational experience for journalism students.
NSNS: What about the tactic of cutting off funding for papers that the administration dislikes? Is that a violation of free speech?
BS: I don't know the specific details. The courts have said that the power of the purse is a clever way of censorship. It's no different than if the school had said "you're not going to print this period," but that [economic censorship] is more and more the most common form of censorship. Sometimes they'll cleverly word it like "we're not satisfied with the quality of the paper." The courts have been pretty understanding that this is a form of censorship. My personal opinion would be that I don't think any school should be obligated to fund a newspaper. It's unacceptable for public schools to be controlling funds based on content issues.