It’s “downloadable,” but… (Teaching Law/Ethics series)

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Page through enough scholastic publications, and sooner or later you’ll see a photo credit that reads “courtesy of the Internet.” Despite how laughable that seems, the Internet, as an entity, can’t provide permission to republish the content it contains. Keep paging and you’ll likely find photos of celebrities and professional athletes from sites like

Both circumstances are examples of copyright infringement, using a copyrighted work without the owner’s permission. The magnitude of information (especially visuals like photos and videos) available online today has made infringement an easy offense. With a few mouse clicks, a user can republish images, download movies or stream music. Even though reputable and legal means exist to do those things, most online material that appears in student publications violates the law.

Ignorance is often the cause of most copyright violations in student publications. After all, if it’s available and “downloadable,” it must be acceptable to republish it as long as attribution/credit accompanies the use. Right? Well, no.

Advisers and student journalists often want to do the right thing when using copyrighted material; they just don’t know how. Copyright law is dense, but understanding the broadest strokes is essential and helpful. This two-part post will highlight the basics of copyright law for journalism educators and students.

Copyright offers the creators of original works of authorship the ability to profit from their endeavors and to control how those works are used. If you take a photo, publish a book or write a play, the law enables you to obtain copyright protection for that work. You can decide who can use it, how it can be used and how much (if anything) you’ll charge someone who wants to use or republish your work.

Simply because copyrighted works are readily available and viewable online doesn’t mean it’s legal to download and republish them, whether in print or online. It’s akin to using someone’s car or any other piece of property—you can’t simply “borrow” a car, cell phone or television set without the owner’s permission.

Giving credit generally isn’t enough. You need the copyright holder’s permission. The owner could be an individual person, but more likely it’s a corporation, publishing house or movie studio. Attributing the source of information overcomes the ethical concern of plagiarism, or passing someone else’s work off as your own. However, it doesn’t overcome copyright concerns.

Part two of this post will explore ways to seek permission and will discuss instances when it is possible to use copyrighted material without seeking permission.


Decisions, decisions (Teaching Law/Ethics, Part 1)

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This is the first in a series of posts that will discuss approaches for teaching students about law, ethics and decision-making skills necessary to be credible scholastic journalists.

A student in your school commits suicide. Do you cover the story? Do you mention the suicide in the story? Do you cover it as a memorial or as an obituary?

Two stars on the school’s state-winning championship basketball team want to talk openly to reporters about their drug use, but only if the paper grants them anonymity. Is it worth honoring their terms to get the story?

To test whether a local business discriminates in its hiring practices by refusing to hire teenagers, a staff member decides to set up a “sting operation” to apply for a job to see whether he gets hired. Is this the right thing to do?

Every scholastic journalism adviser knows too well that dilemmas like these sneak up when you least expect them. They’re unavoidable. As Student Press Law Center director Frank LoMonte once wrote, “Journalism is a contact sport.” Reporters, in their search for the truth, uncover details that some would rather keep hidden, raise questions that make some uncomfortable and publish information that could land people in trouble. It’s part of the job.

However, as I mentioned in my introductory post a few weeks ago, learning how to navigate these decisions is key for maintaining your publication’s credibility with the audience. Readers seek a publication that tells the truth and treats sources fairly while covering controversial and touchy topics.

Decision-making is a process that students must learn. It’s a skill they develop by considering consequences, stakeholders and alternatives. Sometimes that takes a lot of debate and some mental sweat. But ultimately the goal is to make decisions they can justify to their audience, not those they can simply defend. Even if readers do not agree with the final decision, they are sometimes appeased to see the thought process. Below are some points to consider for getting the discussion started:

Talk it out. Good decisions are a team effort. Make it a point to discuss the dilemma from multiple perspectives. Editors, reporters and other staffers should join the conversation.

Some things are just wrong. Students need to understand the difference between legal and ethical issues. The law provides a minimum standard of acceptable behavior. Violating laws (trespassing on private property to gather information, falsely defaming someone, downloading and publishing copyrighted material without the owner’s permission) has consequences—either going to jail or getting sued. Ethics is a higher plane of thinking that seeks the best choice among competing values (truth, independence, transparency, etc.). Ethics is about making the best choice among several legal options.

Below is a list of questions journalists should consider when trying to reach an ethical decision. I’ve used these often with my own students. A post from the Poynter Institute inspired this list. I’ll revisit ethics more in-depth in another post.

  • What is my purpose in writing this story?
  • Who are the stakeholders? Who will be affected?
  • What if the roles were reversed and you were one of the stakeholders?
  • What are the potential consequences of my decision?
  • Are there any alternative courses of action?
  • What additional information do I need to make an effective decision?

Make it part of policy. A solid editorial policy can be your publication’s best friend. Taking the time to think through your values when you’re not in the heat of a big decision can lay the groundwork for a more effective thought process when the stakes are high. More about editorial policies in another post.

Using the above points to treat decision-making as a learned process is the foundation for effectively studying and teaching law and ethics.

“Tinker Tour” stops at Kent State

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For more than 300 students, their history book came alive Tuesday morning when they met Mary Beth Tinker, one of the plaintiffs in the 1969 case Tinker vs. Des Moines, which affirmed the free expression rights of high school students.

The event was part of the “Tinker Tour,” a 19-state RV trip this fall in which Tinker and Mike Hiestand, special projects attorney with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), are promoting the importance of student free speech and press rights.

The tour, a project of the SPLC, includes stops at high schools, colleges, scholastic press association workshops and other special events. The pair visited Kent State as part of the Ohio Scholastic Media Association’s fall regional workshop held at the university.

Tinker’s message rang clear with the audience: Use your rights to create positive changes in the world. She recounted stories of how students and other young people were always on the forefront of social change, especially when she was growing up in the 1960s. Their voices changed the world back then; the young people of today can do the same.

Seeing others’ passion, especially that of her parents, for promoting peace during the Vietnam and civil rights era inspired her to wear the now-famous black armband to school even though that action violated school policy. She and several others who participated were suspended from school, and their families took the case to court. The Supreme Court eventually accepted the case.

The holding, now quoted in countless law reviews, textbooks and subsequent court decisions, affirms that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The outcome of the case has reverberated throughout the scholastic journalism world for more than 40 years—it upheld students’ rights to speak and publish, as long as their actions weren’t materially disruptive to the school environment. In response to a student question, Tinker said the greatest gift the case provided her was the ability to interact with young people to teach them about their rights.

It was amazing to see the students’ excitement to meet and talk with Tinker following her presentation. She definitely received “rock-star” treatment. One student even thanked her for her contribution to the cause of student free speech. Tinker’s passion was obvious, and so was that of the student attendees. It was refreshing to see young people so excited about promoting the First Amendment and free speech. As those involved with journalism education well know, action negates apathy. Seeing that level of enthusiasm was an encouraging sign, indeed.