Libel and the Student Newspaper: Making Tough Calls

Arnetta L. Garcin
Lynbrook High School
San Jose, California

Activity: Following an in-depth discussion of the definition of and laws related to libel in the media, I divide my students into small groups to discuss the following issues which arise when a journalist is faced with making a decision as to whether he or she should print an article or a photograph. While journalists may have the legal right to do so given First Amendment protections, thy will need to evaluate the ethics of doing so and the “need” of the reader “to know.” Students take particular interest in this exercise and some wonderful discussions arise regarding the rights and responsibilities of the journalist.

Situation A:

News is buzzing around the school that the senior class president arrived at school under the influence and he was suspended for three days. As the police were called in to remove him from the campus, a fact that was witnessed by some students, legal charges have also been filed against him in the juvenile court system. This student, 18, as part of his election campaign, promised to work to eliminate student abuse of alcohol and drugs.

The very same week, the vice president of the junior class, 17, was also suspended for being under the influence of drugs.

In both cases, the individuals involved were part of a four-class officer team.

  • As a student reporter, do you report this information in your student newspaper?
  • What rationale do you offer to support your decision?
  • If you decide to print the story, do you print the names of those involved or not?

This event actually occurred at our school and we decided that given their position as leaders on campus that the article should be run. We were advised by the Student Press Law Center, however, that we should run the names of the individuals, who by law are considered “public figures” based on their offices held, and to avoid potential litigation from the other class officers who may be misconstrued to be the ones involved should the names not be run.

Situation B:

During the summer, four students were attending a concert at a local downtown convention center. In the parking lot, they found an unlocked car, opened the door and took a purse that was lying on the seat. In the purse they found a credit card, which they used to purchase computer equipment at a local store. The surveillance camera revealed who they were, but police then needed to identify them.

At the start of the school year, the police visited area high schools, taking the surveillance video with them to identify the students through school records. They were lucky and discovered the identity of the boys, all seniors at your high school. Interestingly, two of the boys were National Merit Scholar Finalists and the other two were equally high achievers. The parents were contacted and arrangements were made for the boys to come to the courthouse, with parents and legal representation, for arraignment.

One of the boys did not wish to miss a test, so instead of going in at the appointed time, he went to the school to take the test. The police arrived and removed him from the classroom, handcuffed him in full view of changing classes, and escorted him to the police station. One of the witnesses was a student journalist.

The staff must decide whether or not to print the story.

  • Because the theft occurred during the summer, does that disqualify its newsworthiness?
  • Is age a factor in reporting this story?
  • Should names be published?

The actual trial will not take place for several months; however, two of the boys involved have already admitted their guilt in preliminary hearings and to their friends.

The young man who was arrested on campus has now returned and has approached the adviser and the staff requesting that nothing be printed because “It didn’t involve the school; it’s my personal business and the court will punish me. The school should not take the role of punisher when we make a mistake.” Two sets of parents have also phoned the adviser pleading with the staff not to print the article because of its possible effect on them within their community and among their peers.

In this situation, the staff decided that the fact that the young man was arrested on campus, in full view, made it news. Also, the staff reasoned that reporting this event would serve a positive function in that it would remind students to think before taking decisions which could place them in a similar situation. However, the staff chose to report the story without printing the names, identifying them only by grade level.

Situation C:

A young, sophomore girl was abducted after school in the parking lot of a nearby supermarket. In reporting the abduction, one radio station identified the girl by name, although other media did not release her name because she was a minor. Later in the evening, she was dropped off by her abductor in a rural area nearby. She had been raped but was unharmed otherwise.

To add to the trauma of this young woman, her family’s home burned to the ground a week later due to faulty electrical wiring.

Following a 10-day absence, the young woman is returning to classes.

The staff is debating whether or not to cover the story in the school paper. Evaluate the pros and cons of printing such a story.

  • How will the young woman be affected if the story is run?
  • What rationale can be offered for running such a story?

Given the highly sensitive nature of the story and the desire, on the part of the staff, to respect her privacy due to the trauma she has experienced, the staff decided not to cover the “news” story attached to this event, and instead, to run an editorial reminding students to be cautious and alert at all times. The staff felt that their decision reflected compassion for the young woman while at the same time warning all students of the potential danger, a goal accomplished in an ethical and responsible manner.

Many other situations can be brought to debate, as well. Should a paper run:

  • a photo of an individual leaping to his death?
  • a photo of an individual who was severely injured when an overpass collapsed, throwing her body from her car onto a hanging girder, during a recent earthquake?

The discussions are always animated and lively, an excellent preparation for the many situations student journalists confront on a regular basis.



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