The Kansas Student Publications Act
a law protecting free expression in Kansas schools since 1992
WHAT DOES THE LAW DO?
The Kansas Student Publications Act broadly protects student journalists in the state’s public schools from the censorship of school principals, administrators or school boards. Students have the right to publish even “controversial” content in their school publications, according to the law.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Journalism relies on free expression. The First Amendment enshrined this American principle of democracy, and the free press has flourished with those protections. Without protection from censorship, student journalists would not truly be learning journalism. The law also makes students explicitly responsible for what they publish.
“The liberty of the press in student publications shall be protected [...] Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”
Our Stories. Our Voices. Our Freedom.
In 2017, KSPA celebrated 25 years of student journalism protected by the law. We produced this documentary, “Our Stories. Our Voices. Our Freedoms” so that students would continue creating vital journalism for their schools and grasp the power of the law.
Putting the Law in Context
The free expression rights protected by the Kansas law are the result of more than 200 years of constitutional amendments, court battles and laws. This slidedeck might be the perfect classroom resource to put it all in perspective.
Section 1. This act shall be known and may be cited as the student publications act.
Sec. 2 As used in this act:
(a) “School district” means any public school district organized and operating under the laws of this state.
(b) “Student publication” means any matter which is prepared, substantially written, or published by students, which is distributed or generally made available, either free of charge or for a fee, to members of the student body, and which is prepared under the direction of a certified employee.
(a) The liberty of the press in student publications shall be protected. School employees may regulate the number, length, frequency, distribution and format of student publications. Material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.
(b) Review of material prepared for student publications and encouragement of the expression of such material in a manner that is consistent with high standards of English and journalism shall not be deemed to be or construed as a restraint on publication of the material or an abridgment of the right to freedom of expression in student publications.
(c) Publication or other expression that is libelous, slanderous or obscene or matter that commands, requests, induces, encourages, commends or promotes conduct that is defined by law as a crime or conduct that constitutes a ground or grounds for the suspension or expulsion of students as enumerated in K.S.A. 728901, and amendments thereto, or which creates material or substantial disruption of the normal school activity is not protected by this act.
(d) Subject to the limitations imposed by this section, student editors of student publications are responsible for determining the news, opinion, and advertising content of such publications. Student publication advisers and other certified employees who supervise or direct the preparation of material for expression in student publications are responsible for teaching and encouraging free and responsible expression of material and high standards of English and journalism. NO such adviser or employee shall be terminated from employment, transferred, or relieved of duties imposed under this subsection for refusal to abridge or infringe upon the right to freedom of expression conferred by this act.
(e) No publication or other expression of matter by students in the exercise of rights under this act shall be deemed to be an expression of school district policy. No school district, member of the board of education or employee thereof, shall be held responsible in any civil or criminal action for any publication or other expression of matter by students in the exercise of rights under this act. Student editors and other students of a school district, if such student editors and other students have attained the age of majority, shall be held liable in any civil or criminal action for mailer expressed in student publications to the extent of any such student editor’s or other student’s responsibility for and involvement in the preparation and publication of such matter.
INSPIRATION FROM KANSAS
Here are some recent case of student journalists and their advisers who have accomplished extraordinary things with the help of the Kansas Student Publications Act:
2021: SCHOOL NAMESAKE CONTROVERSY
Madeline Gearhart earned the 2021 Courage in Journalism Award from KSPA for her reporting on the namesake for her school, Fred Seaman, who as a leader in the KKK decades before. Digging through historical records, Gearhart discovered the hidden history and published a series of stories that eventually led to national media attention and possibility that the school would change its name.
- The coverage that broke the story in the Seaman Clipper student newspaper
- Coverage of Gearhart’s work in the Kansas City Star
- The school district’s website in considering a name change
- A podcast about the controversy from national media outlet Vox, “Today, Explained”
- Gearhart’s acceptance of the Courage in Journalism Award during a virtual ceremony in 2021
2019: USING THE LAW IN COURT
When students walked out of schools throughout the Shawnee Mission School District, they were protesting gun violence in the wake of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. However, another controversy grew out of the protest. Administrators confiscated school cameras from student journalists, effectively preventing them from covering the protests. With legal aid from the ACLU, Grace Altenhofen of Shawnee Mission North High School sued the district. The case is a landmark in Kansas because it is the only time that the Kansas Student Publications Act has been litigated in court, providing it with increased legal legitimacy.
- KSPA’s page celebrating Altenhofen’s winning the first Courage in Journalism Award in 2019
- An opinion piece in the Kansas City Star from a Shawnee Mission Northwest student journalist (and video of school board testimony)
- Kansas City Star coverage of the walkout controversy
- The Shawnee Mission Post’s coverage of Grace’s fight against the district
- The Shawnee Mission Post’s coverage of the dispute’s resolution
2020: A STAFF FIGHTS UNTIL THE END
The cruel reality of the Kansas Student Publications Act is this: it does not prevent an administrator from shuttering an entire journalism program. That is essentiall what happened in 2020 in Sterling High School. Under budget tensions, the superintendent eliminated the position of Todd Vogts, the long-time and award-winning teacher there. However, his students publicly opposed the decision with an editorial and covered the decision on the front page of the Cub Reporter newspaper. This relentless work earned them the 2020 Courage in Journalism Award from KSPA.
2017: OUR PRINCIPAL IS A FAKE
Six students from the Booster Redux newspaper reported on their newly principal. The twist? She falsified her credentials! The story received international attention, and the students — plus their adviser — attended the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.
Here are some helpful links that will help teachers understand and teach the Kansas Student Publications Act to their students:
The documentary “Our Voices. Our Stories. Our Freedoms” was produced by KSPA to teach the next generation of student journalists about the law on the 25th anniversary of the law in 2017. LINK
This beginning-to-end lesson plan will guide teachers through instructing the law, including a script, discussion questions and worksheets for classroom use. LINK
The Journalism Education Association has a curriculum that includes a “Law & Ethics” component that you can use in your classroom. (JEA membership required) LINK
From the Newseum’s education wing comes this video, narrated by Martin Sheen, about the power of the “45 Words” of the First Amendment. LINK
Want to get involved with free expression? These links will give you the help you need to protect yourself from censorship and fight for your rights.
The Student Press Law Center sponsors an annual award for student journalists nationally to reward excellence in free expression. LINK
Great administrators deserve huge acclaim! So, nominate your principal, superintendent or other administrators for supporting your free expression and journalism through KSPA’s Administrator of the Year Award. LINK
The Student Press Law Center also awards administrators through their Courage in Student Journalism Awards. LINK
WHO'S GOT YOUR BACK?
What can you do when you find yourself in a crisis of censorship? Who can you turn to? This list of organizations will help you get quick help when you need it.
KSPA thanks the following groups whose funding for the “Our Voices. Our Stories. Our Freedoms” documentary video helped make this project possible: