Controversial student newspaper released today

When Federal Way High School students pick up their copy of The Eagle Eye newspaper today, they’re likely to turn straight to the Opinion page and read a letter to the editor written by one of their teachers.

It’s a long correspondence that many likely would have skipped under normal circumstances, says The Eagle Eye co-editor Laura Brown.

However, there’s nothing normal about the students’ first newspaper this year — it became the center of an election-related controversy this week.

Federal Way Public Schools ordered the publication held after learning about the letter, written by teacher Pam Ashe, which discusses her opposition to school board candidate Karla Dyer’s views on book censorship. Ashe said she would have submitted the letter even if Dyer was not a candidate, but did mention Dyer’s candidacy in the letter.

However, Dyer’s candidacy wasn’t the point of the letter, she said.

“She made it a campaign issue. I didn’t want it to be a campaign issue,” Ashe said.

The situation left student journalists frustrated this week — especially since one of the articles dealt with the Nov. 1 Eagles football game and was out of date by today.

“It was supposed to be fresh ... it was supposed to be informative,” said junior Melisa Cate, 16.

“Just knowing that someone who doesn’t have anything to do with the newspaper is withholding it is frustrating,” said 16-year-old junior Sandy Oh.

Oh, the features page editor, said she and many other students spent many lunches working on the paper to get it out on time, staying late into the evening daily the week before it went to press.

Co-editor David Brooks, 17, said the letter in question mainly reiterates Dyer’s views, and that she should be happy to have them published if she really believes in them. He said censorship should not be used to fulfill a personal goal.

“It’s like she’s censor crazy,” he said.

He added that Dyer raising the concern about the newspaper could backfire on Election Day.

Dyer said that could be true.

“Or it could be the best free advertising I’ve got,” she said.

“We’ll find out today,” she said Tuesday morning.

Dyer acknowledged that she was offered a chance to respond to Ashe’s letter, but declined because she thought it might violate campaign rules. That same concern prompted her to raise the issue with district officials, who have the right to censor school papers when appropriate, she said.

“They can’t just print anything they want to,” she said.

The paper was supposed to be distributed Nov. 1, but the 1,400 copies sat in teacher Keith Swanson’s car until today, when the district allowed students to distribute their work.

The district ordered the paper held following concerns expressed by Dyer, who heard about the letter when newspaper adviser Keith Swanson called her to invite her to write supporting her views at Brown’s request. She said publishing the letter before the election was tantamount to using district resources to harm her campaign, a Public Disclosure Violation.

The PDC declined to rule on the case, but district Chief Operations Officer Mark Davidson said the district ordered The Eagle Eye held on advice of its attorneys.

“We have received clear legal advice that it would be a violation because the paper ... is an arm of the government. Even though it’s student funded, all funds ... come through the board,” Davidson said.

Davidson conceded that students have addressed and stated opinions about election issues prior to the time ballots were cast in past newspapers, such as school levies.

However, two things were different in this case: There was a complaint about the issue, and the letter came from a school district employee, not a student, he said.

“We certainly don’t screen student papers here (in the district office) for their content. It’s where it’s something that’s brought to our attention that we kind of make that move,” he said.

Though the district’s attorney advised holding the paper, the PDC declined to rule on the case when the district requested it do so.

The PDC received plenty of feedback nonetheless.

Sharyn Gagen, Washington Journalism Education Association president, said the paper should’ve been allowed to publish on time in an e-mail to the PDC.

She cited state law, which says public facilities can’t be used to promote candidates but also contains several exceptions. One is for activities that are part of the “normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”

“A school newspaper is just that type of an activity,” Gagen wrote.

Swanson agreed.

“It’s my opinion that a student newspaper which consistently publishes letters to the editor is acting according to professional journalistic standards,” he said Monday.

Fern Valentine, WJEA Freedom of Expression chairwoman, said many decisions regarding student newspapers are made on the basis of the Hazelwood v. Kuhlemeir School District case of 1988, which does not apply to Washington state due to the way the state constitution is written. In addition, state law clearly states, “All students possess the constitutional right to freedom of speech and press,” she said in an e-mail to Swanson.

Tanya Williams, a 15-year-old junior, said she’s angry that Dyer’s concerns prompted the district to hold the paper.

So are many other Eagle Eye staff members. However, Brooks said there is a silver lining.

“I hope it will help our staff,” he said, “to realize the importance of our work.”

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