The University of Central Arkansas welcomed journalist and media lawyer Frank LoMonte as part of the Artist in Residence series this week.
LoMonte spoke on the importance of student media and the first amendment, freedom of information in a time of evolving technology, the right to gather news, laws pertaining to journalism and more.
On Friday, the campus welcomed high school students from St. Joseph School and Alma School District for the high school journalism day.
LoMonte spoke with students about their rights within the confines of a school newspaper as well as what their role is in today’s evolving media.
He said with newspapers closing all across the country, forcing layoffs, there’s not enough journalists to cover what needs to be covered like education beats or small-town city councils; in that, there’s many communities where the only persons able to attend those meetings are high school reporters.
“You really are the community’s last line of defense for communications,” LoMonte said.
As much as we need those groups to cover the ranging topics, he said, those students also need to be protected when they go out in the field just like professional journalists.
That is what he does.
LoMonte said he helps student journalists understand the rights they have now and also works to help better those rights; not only to improve press freedom but the ability for a student to tell a story without having to look over their shoulder in fear of retaliation.
The seasoned expert asked the class of students how many have been told they can’t publish something in their school newspaper on the grounds that it would make the school look bad; several raised their hands.
LoMonte said that’s where the Arkansas Student Publications Act of 1995 — which provides student journalists in high school added protection against administrative censorship — comes into play.
The act states that student publications policies set forth by the district must recognize that students have the right to exercise their right of expression — within the framework of reasonable provisions for the time, place and manner of distributing said publications.
Section 4 reads that, “student publications policies shall recognize the truth, fairness, accuracy, and responsibility,” which are essential to journalism.
LoMonte said in the act, it does outline four reasons administrators are justified in when pulling a story(s): publications that are obscene to minors, as defined by law; publications that are libelous or slanderous, as defined by law; publications that are unwarranted invasions of privacy, defined by law; or publications that incite students to create danger of illegal acts on school property or violations of school policies and regulations or disrupts the operation of the school.
He said whenever he has the chance to talk with school officials he always brings up the choices they have.
LoMonte said students want to talk and discuss certain issues and as a school, officials have the ability to decide where that discussion takes place.
“You do not stop the discussion of sensitive or controversial things by pulling articles out of newspapers,” he said. “What you do when you pull those things out of the newspaper … it’s like squeezing the air out of a balloon. You’re just relocating that.”
Instead of people reading a factual, verified and balanced story, LoMonte said, it moves to social media feeding off rumors, gossip and speculation.
“That’s what they’re going to get,” he said, adding that censorship does not silence those conversations.
Instead, LoMonte said, why don’t we throw open the doors of a newsroom and welcome that discussion there in a place where people will sign their names, fact check, consider the legal ramifications and have the benefit of an adult advisor.
“Why don’t we wrap our arms tightly around it and embrace it,” he said.
Polly Walter, associate professor in journalism at UCA, helped bring LoMonte to campus.
Walter said she first heard LoMonte a couple years ago during a student media workshop in Tennessee.
“To me, he’s a very strong speaker, very vivacious,” she said. “We all thought he was a good speaker.”
After applying for and receiving a grant, she said she was able to bring him to campus, good timing with what’s been happening in news media and with student journalists and the climate across the nation.
“It all ties together and we were hoping his presence would kind of energize our students for the year,” Walter said.
She said they received good responses from the classes LoMonte was able to speak with; students asked questions, gave feedback and were able to critically think about different issues while LoMonte gave story ideas and different websites to better serve the students.
“I think it’s been very good,” Walter said.
She said not only did students gain information but the adults and professionals in the varying audiences also learned a thing or two, herself included.
“For us, it’s been great to get a little bit, you know, more update in our field,” Walter said. “Part of teaching is, you always need to update, so this was a wonderful way for us to get updated as well.”
Overall, she said, they were excited that LoMonte got a chance to come to UCA.
‘We’ve really had a great time, a good week,” Walter said.