Libel Laws, Freedom of the Press and Journalistic Ethics

Elizabeth French Truesdell
Kamehameha High School
Honolulu, Hawaii

Unit Overview and Rationale
Being in the right, legally and ethically, is critical to producing a reputable news publication. All student journalists should have a basic understanding of libel laws, the difference between public and private figures, the tension between freedom of the press and censorship in school press law, and an appropriate code of ethics that guides their reporting and the publication’s content. Once this conceptual foundation is laid at the beginning of the year, the staff has a solid ideology that will govern its coverage of events and people throughout the year.

Unit Objectives
Through class lecture, discussion, small group activities, Internet research, and selected readings, students will gain an understanding of:

  • the definitions of libel and slander
  • the appropriate application of privacy issues to student publications, particularly when covering the activities of minors
  • the Tinker and Hazelwood court decisions and their implications for freedom of the scholastic press
  • press freedom in private schools

After reviewing various Codes of Ethics adopted by professional organizations and schools, the students will generate a functional code of ethics for their publication.

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • What is libel?
    • How much privacy can a person expect to have if he or she is the news or becomes newsworthy?
    • What court cases shape school press law?
    • What ethical guidelines should journalists follow?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • How does a journalist protect himself against a libel suit?
    • How do journalists balance the public’s need to know with an individual’s right for privacy?
    • What special protection do minors have regarding news coverage of their actions?
    • In what ways do the Tinker and Hazelwood court decisions affect my school newspaper?
    • How do our definitions of ethics, morality, and responsibility and the guidelines those definitions generate apply to journalists in their daily work?
  • Activity 1
    • Lecture/discussion with handouts related to journalism law: libel, slander, and privacy rights.
    • Distribute a list of situations and statements, have students determine whether they violate libel law or privacy rights using their notes and the Website information for guidance. Write a brief response to each scenario or statement.
    • Homework:
  • Activity 2
    • In small groups, then as a whole class, discuss the situations/statements homework as a segue to introduce the idea of freedom and responsibility of the press.
    • Introduce First Amendment and its guarantees. Discuss in class if the United States has complete freedom of the press. Introduce the Tinker and Hazelwood court cases and the limits they imposed for scholastic press freedoms.
    • Handout: First Amendment Rights of Public High School Student Journalists After Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (provided by Student Press Law Center)
    • Homework: Have students read “Private Schools and Press Freedom,” from Law of the Student Press. Students must write a one-paragraph summary of their writes given the Tinker and Hazelwood decisions and our situation in a private school.
  • Activity 3
  • Discuss homework and students’ understanding of scholastic press freedoms and censorship realities in private schools.
  • Generate questions for our principal and Chief Education Officer regarding the school policy on freedom of the press in our student publications. Pursue the possibility of an interview/press conference type meeting with one or both officials to discuss the issues and have students ask their questions. This would provide practice in interviewing school administrators, note taking, and writing a story reporting on the issue.
  • Transition: Brainstorm ways to prevent school administrators from wanting to censor our newspaper. What kinds of reporting and ethical treatment of stories would protect our newspaper while allowing it to be thorough and cover important stories for our school community?
  • Distribute copies of various codes of ethics. Have students review and discuss them in small groups and consider them at home. (
  • Homework: Students should asterisk elements of the various codes that they believe are particularly important in developing our own publication’s Code of Ethics. Be prepared to discuss choices tomorrow in class.
  • Activity 4
    • The editors in chief will facilitate a discussion in which the staff generates the main elements of a Code of Ethics and gets as detailed as possible within a class period. The process will be finalized by the members of the Editorial Board in after-school meetings over the next week. The final result will be presented to the whole staff for adoption.
  • Activity 5
    • Follow-up activity after the Code of Ethics has been finalized and adopted:
      • Present students with scenarios and have them apply the code of ethics in small groups to discuss its implications for news coverage.
      • Groups will make reports to the full staff summarizing their discussion and decisions. This can be an ongoing, down time activity throughout the year to continue to refine and test students’ ethical sense as it applies to journalism.
  • Homework assignments will receive credit for completion based on quality and thoughtfulness.
  • Participation points will be assigned for contributions made in class discussion.
Recommended Readings and Sources

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