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School district media policies must account for journalists’ rights


Mindful of privacy issues, many school districts have policies in place that govern media access, but districts also must take care that these policies do not leave them vulnerable to legal challenges. One media law attorney suggested some local districts could be.

Policy 911, passed by the Quakertown Community board in December, requires teachers and other staff to get approval from the district’s representative — New Jersey PR firm Laura Bishop Communications — before they speak to the media.

In a survey of 10 of the county’s 13 districts, five others — Council Rock, Pennridge, Centennial, Pennsbury and Neshaminy — have similar policies, many of them culled from a Pennsylvania School Boards Association policy.

Federal courts have struck down some of these types of policies. In an e-mail, Melissa Melewsky, of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said school district media policies cannot impose a barrier on journalists’ right to gather news or run afoul of the First Amendment.

“A policy like the one you’ve described (in Quakertown) could result in similar legal action in federal court against the school district, and ultimately, the taxpayers would be responsible for litigation and associated costs,” she said.

In nearly two dozen cases since the 1940s, federal courts have upheld public employees’ rights to speak freely to the media without interference, according to a 2019 report by Brechner Center for the Advancement of the First Amendment.

In Pickering v. Board of Education, teacher Marvin Pickering was fired for publicly criticizing his school district’s spending priorities. In a 1967 opinion, the Supreme Court said he deserved First Amendment protection because his letter to the editor addressed a matter of public concern.

Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, observed that many organizations, including school boards, have adopted these policies without consequences. Burke is currently leading a similar fight in Allegheny County, suing to overturn a policy that prevents individuals from directly contacting journalists without prior approval.

Quakertown School Board directors, including members of the policy committee, did not respond to requests for comment on the Policy 911, which passed unanimously Dec. 6. Pennridge did not provide a justification for its policy.

PSBA spokesperson Mackenzie Christiana said the PSBA could not comment on the constitutionality of its policy, which has been broadly adopted by school boards across the commonwealth.

A glance at all 10 districts’ media relations policies reveals virtually identical language.

Palisades explicitly forbids its employees from releasing sensitive private information but does not impose any other barriers. The New Hope-Solebury and Central Bucks school districts have no policies on employee-media access.

The Bristol Township, Bristol Borough and Bensalem school districts were not included in the survey.

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