The Fort Smith School District is updating its student handbook, including student publications policy. Amendments can be made, but there are still questions to be answered.

In an effort to maintain consistency with other Arkansas districts, Fort Smith is modifying its handbook using policy written by the Arkansas School Boards Association. Districts using the policies are given updates as laws change, ensuring districts are always in compliance with state law.

The Fort Smith Board of Education approved on first reading Monday several section changes, including student publications, which has many changes from the previous policy.

“They have staff that studies this,” Darian Layes, Fort Smith executive director of student services, said of ASBA. “They look at best practices and policies around the country. You adopt their policies and every time there is a change, there’s less chance of something falling through the cracks. Most of them are just semantic.”

When it was stated the new policy is significantly different from the old one, Layes said, “Was it? I can’t remember what our previous one said. … The school board association gives us their recommendation, based on their experiences. That’s more or less what we’re doing.”

Layes said there wasn’t an instance at any district campus that spurred the change.

Old publication policy

A redline copy of the policy, which shows changes made from the original to the updated version, indicates a large portion about First Amendment rights and a focus on teaching ethical journalism has been removed.

“The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the rights of students to freedom of expression,” the original policy states. “Educators have the obligation to teach the responsibilities that accompany this freedom.”

It also states school publications are educational tools, outlining the responsibilities of a student media adviser and requirements for students. Truth, fairness, accuracy and responsibility were listed as journalism essentials; students were instructed to operate legally and ethically in their publications, the original policy said.

The old policy stated school publications were not public forums for “indiscriminate use” by the public. District administration still had a “right and duty to exercise supervision and final judgment over the content of all school publications.”

Content libelous and obscene to minors, and materials that encouraged unlawful acts or disrupted school operations were prohibited.

New publication policy

The recently approved model policy includes no mention of the First Amendment or the district’s effort to teach ethical and legal journalism. The district did not note if this was still its student media mission.

Print and digital student media are for student expression but not a forum for public expression, the policy says. Student media “shall be subject to the editorial control of the district’s administration, whose actions shall be reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns” and adhere to certain limitations.

Advertising cannot condone or promote products that are inappropriate for the age and maturity of the publication’s audience. This includes drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

Student media may be regulated to prohibit work that are “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.” This will be determined by a teacher and/or administrator, the policy states.

When asked if there will be a baseline for prohibition, because one person’s opinion might not reflect the district’s stance, a response was not given.

Work can also be barred from publication if it is reasonably perceived to “advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex, or condone otherwise inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order, or to associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”

The Times Record asked if “shared values” and “matters of political controversy” would be defined, because these can vary by social groups. This wasn't directly addressed.

Students who write opinion pieces on political issues may not represent the views of the district, but they will still be associated due to their educational status. It's unclear if they would be prohibited from publication.

Other prohibitions include: materials obscene to minors, libel or slander, media created with the knowledge of “falsity or reckless disregard of the truth,” privacy invasion defined by state law, an urge or suggestion to perform illegal acts at school or break school rules, and “hate literature that scurrilously attacks ethnic, religious or racial groups.”

Students wishing to publish 10 or more copies of non-school materials are required to submit them to school administration three days before desired distribution. These may be prohibited if the content falls under the prohibited materials. Publications may also be barred from distribution if there is the reasonable belief that they will cause substantial disruption of the “orderly operation of the school or educational environment.”

The definition of a substantial disruption was not provided to the Times Record. It is unclear if this applies to school publication as well.

The superintendent will make final decisions in cases concerning the denial of a publication's distribution.

“We did not have an updated student media policy, so the district adopted the ASBA model policy in effect at the time of the vote,” Fort Smith Executive Director of Communications Zena Featherston Marshall wrote.

“Now, we will engage with the student media sponsors to develop rules and regulations consistent with the statute and the guidelines from the ASBA,” Featherston Marshall said in the statement. “As shared in the abstract about the handbook changes that were approved on July 8, policies in the handbook can now be reviewed and updated as new laws go into effect and case law is determined throughout the school year.”

Updates to come

Despite changing the policy, more changes will need to be made to comply with state law.

Act 912, passed by the 2019 state legislature and signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, strengthened the Arkansas Student Publications Act by guaranteeing the Constitutional rights of students.

"Student media policies shall recognize that students may exercise their right of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States," the bill states. "This right includes expression in school-sponsored meida, whether such student media are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities or are produced in conjuntion with a class."

Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said in a statement the district's new policy contradicts Act 912 and its few exemptions.

"That overreaching and unfair policy is an insult to student journalists and the journalism advisers who teach them," Wimberley said. "We are pleased to hear that it appears Fort Smith plans to re-evaluate its improper policy and give journalism advisors an opportunity for input."

The Times Record also reached out to ASBA for comment.