Q: Who can be held liable for what is published by student media?
A: Student media advisers and school officials often wonder if they can be held liable for what student publications publish. Generally, if editorial control and decisions about content are left in the students’ hands, then advisers and school officials will not be held liable for anything published.
The general principle underlying liability is that any person who should and reasonably could have prevented an injury from occurring can be held responsible for it. In the student media context, this means that anyone who wrote a story containing libel, any editor or other staff member that took part in overseeing its reporting, editing and inclusion in the publication, could be held liable. In public colleges, courts have held that the schools will not be held financially liable for what their student media publish as long as the school is not censoring or exercising some other form of content control. At public high schools where a principal insists on mandatory prior review and approval of a publication, the school is likely opening itself up to be held at least partially accountable for what the publication publishes. On the other hand, if a public high school establishes a policy that gives students press freedom and limits administrative interference, a strong argument can be made that the school should be shielded from any resulting liability.
At private high schools and colleges, the answer becomes a little murkier. But the best way for a private school to protect itself from liability is to keep school officials from interfering with content decisions made by student editors. The strongest basis for protecting the school from liability is to have a clear, written policy affirming the rights of students to make editorial decisions in exchange for the students assuming responsibility for all content.