How Seattle journalist got school censorship scoop

Seattle area public schools will allow free speech and free press thanks to an alert journalist who spotted a hidden pending policy change.

This is a story about the value of good old-fashioned beat reporting that included pawing through boring-looking documents. It is a story about how endless hours of committee hearings and school board discussions can build the foundation for a great story.

Phyllis Fletcher is the education reporter for Seattle’s KUOW public radio. She mostly covers the Seattle School District with occasional suburban and higher education stories. Like journalists in most smaller newsrooms, she can also get pulled into other daily assignments as needed.

Phyllis Fletcher started at KUOW as an intern about nine years ago.

Fletcher perked up when she spotted what she believed was a change in official policy about whether student newspapers in Seattle schools should be free to print what they wish or come under the potentially heavy-handed rule of principals.

At first, school officials denied there had been a change. Then they agreed there had been. Within a few days of Fletcher’s report, and a flood of media follow-ups, the school district completely reversed the policy.

None of this would have happened if Fletcher had not been intimately familiar with the school board’s inner workings, and if she had been less curious about a document buried within another document online. What follows is an edited interview with Fletcher about her work.

Al Tompkins: Did you know what you had when you read the passage on the school document? What on earth made you look at the otherwise fairly dry (and unsearchable) document?

Phyllis Fletcher: I knew as soon as I saw the words "principals," "review," and "prior to publication" that it was a huge change. Years ago, I learned about the policy overhaul project, and made a mental note that when those changes were finally unveiled, I should look for any language that would give principals prior review of student newspapers.

I made this note because I had covered a press freedom lawsuit in another district where principals had prior review. That was when I learned that Seattle, in contrast to the other district, granted students freedom of the press. That's also when I learned that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not guarantee press freedom in public school student papers, and that Washington State is not one of the seven states that guarantees that right. So restrictions like prior review are legal in Washington under state and federal law, and they often lead to "prior restraint" -- i.e., principals killing stories. The draft policy in Seattle would have let a principal kill a story for reasons as broad and subjective as being "inappropriate," "disruptive," or not "in keeping with the school's mission and instructional values."

It sounds like you knew more about the change in the policy language than some board members.

Fletcher: It appeared that way. The policies were developed by district lawyers who report to the superintendent. The lawyers had guidance from a statewide organization that advises school boards on policy matters. I called the board member who oversaw the changes, and he denied that the language was a change from current policy. I described the content of the old and new policies.  He asked to have some time to look into it and call me back. He did, and he admitted the change, but described it as a protection to keep students from printing libel or obscenity. Journalism teachers say their students already enjoyed that protection, and point out that the district's existing free press policy already barred libel and obscenity.

What made this even more interesting was that the proposed change ran counter to an argument the Seattle School District had made in court that summer. The district had been sued for libel, and had argued in court that it was not responsible for damages because its students had freedom of the press.  (The district also argued that the article in question was not libelous, because it was true.) The district won that case, and it's under appeal.

Do you cover a school beat? Why is that important for newsrooms to do, especially when newsrooms need their journalists to cover so much territory these days?

Fletcher: I think it's important for even a small newsroom to assign beats and/or let reporters develop them. Even if a beat is a subject matter that doesn't have a go-to board (like the education beat and school boards), the coverage should include legislative bodies that set policy in that subject area. So much of what happens in those entities is public, but murky, for one reason or another.  You can rely on watchdogs to tip you off. But that's just part of it.

You also have to find and expose things that haven't risen even to the watchdogs' finely-tuned radar. That means you have to find things that haven't made anyone angry (yet). You'll find things that are quirky, interesting, odd, or that demonstrate that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.  The more you bring these things to light, the more you and your audience learn, and the more you build credibility with tipsters -- and with the body you cover.

It's important for reporters to have beats because the same plots and themes are resurrected constantly: strikes, layoffs, lawsuits, audits, elections. When a reporter can cover a beat for a number of years, that experience and expertise lets the reporter add nuance and context to a recurring or continuing story, and the audience benefits.

What is the bigger story here that other journalists should start digging for? Where will they find stuff like school policy on open press?

Fletcher: When you first start to cover a legislative body, it's boring, intimidating, thankless, confusing, and all those things that cause you to question your life choices. Find a way to be amused by the tedium. Bring food.  Get into it like you're watching a movie. If your employer supports it, tweet or blog during the meetings. Notice the speech patterns and trivialities that drive you nuts. If you don't understand something, ask about it. If people seem to be speaking in code, pay attention to that. Save all your tape. If you cover the same beat long enough, your old tape will be useful to you later.

A task that seems boring and intimidating at first is to keep up with all the meetings. Find out when the agendas are published and review every one.  Ask your editor to help you prioritize, and don't be discouraged that you can't go to everything. Even if you miss a meeting, check the agenda (or the minutes, after they're approved; some bodies release very detailed minutes, plus audio and video). Something in there might ring a bell. If you develop a system to track all those bells that need to be rung, that might serve you better than your memory (which I relied on in this case).

Check municipal, county, and federal courts for lawsuits that name the people and organizations you cover. If you're on the beat long enough, cases you report on will make their way through the appeals system. Find out when those opinions are released.

Fletcher also turned to her Twitter and radio followers to help her report on education policies.

Fletcher: As you develop your beat, be confident that others will find what you do useful, and that they'll be grateful for it. And don't be discouraged when you get scooped. Learn from it, if you can. Next time, it'll be your turn. But you have to lay the groundwork first -- with all those tasks that seem thankless until, suddenly, they're not.

Interestingly, the Seattle Area School System Superintendent, Susan Enfield, is a former journalism teacher. KUOW’s follow-up report Monday included this passage:

Teresa Wippel is a spokesperson for Superintendent Susan Enfield.

Wippel: "She felt strongly that it's important that we give our students a chance to fully understand the rights and responsibilities that come along with freedom of the press, and that we needed to have a policy that reflected that."

Given that statement, it is still unclear how the superintendent’s staff could have inserted the language into the policy that would have removed student press freedom.

Resource: Student Press Law Center

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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