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Leave it to the grandparents…

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From the Winter 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. I was one of those nerdy…

From the Winter 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

I was one of those nerdy high school kids who bounced around between sports, drama, choir, newspaper and debate. Whenever we had a big tournament or performance, there was one man who always caught our attention: Ken Kleven, longtime photographer for the Grand Forks Herald. He’d show up, and we’d jockey for a spot in front of the camera.

If Ken showed up to take our picture, we knew our play/concert/game would be highlighted in the paper and maybe we’d attract a bigger audience. Mom would scavenge the neighborhood for extra copies and send the clippings off to both grandmas. A special bonus: Dad’s secretary’s husband was a printer at the Herald and after the photo was processed into hot type, he’d sneak the proof out of the trash and give it to Dad for my scrapbook.

Life was simpler then. The newspaper was a true chronicle of the community. No one worried about making money off the performance of high school kids.

As I read this issue’s cover story by Corinna Zarek, I was struck by how times have changed. She reports that an agreement between the Illinois High School Association and Visual Image Photography, Inc., is causing consternation in communities across the state and is being reviewed by the Illinois courts.

Under IHSA’s policy, photographers must agree that they will not sell photos from IHSA-controlled events or they will not be allowed to photograph sporting events.

Several Illinois newspapers were shut out from championship football games last fall because IHSA said they were not “in compliance” on the sales issue. The National Federation of State High School Associations says about 12 state activities associations have adopted similar rules.

A victory for the high school association means that local newspapers and television stations will be severely restricted in covering sporting events that often are a highlight of a local community’s week. Photographers will not be able to sell pictures of sporting events to families and, in all likelihood, will not be able to post them indefinitely on newspaper and television Web sites.

As our guest column by attorney Mickey H. Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, points out, this is not a pure First Amendment issue. The question of whether these are private events sponsored by private organizations or quasi-public events sponsored by public schools is not open and shut.

Professional sports, which are privately owned, for-profit ventures, have long required reporters and photographers seeking press credentials to abide by certain agreements before they will be issued press passes. Often the agreements require that not even scores can be reported until the completion of a game unless your news organization — usually a television or radio network — has paid for exclusive rights to the play-by-play.

Those restrictions can sometimes be interpreted into the realm of the ridiculous. (A possible scenario: golfer Greg Norman has a record-setting meltdown in the last round of the Masters and no one other than the TV network with the exclusive contract can report it as it happens.)

Big money is made in professional and college sports, rock concerts and the like. But can’t we agree that there’s something different about high school?

I’m long past glee clubs and tennis teams. But I’m still an avid supporter of my sister’s very athletic children. Last spring, advances in technology allowed me to watch my nephew, Marcus, hit a home run at an American Legion baseball game in North Dakota via a local television station’s Web site. Could the baseball league have contractually prevented the TV station from posting the run on its Web site? A court might decide the answer is yes.

High school athletes, local media and communities need each other. Perhaps local media should boycott high school events when restrictive contracts are presented to photographers just to make a point. That might catch the attention of publicity-seeking school district officials.

My late Grandma Dalglish kept a scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings about us that Mom and Dad had sent to her over the years. I have this vision of Grandma giving our school officials a piece of her mind had they pulled something like this new Illinois rule.

Let’s hope common sense prevails. If not, let’s summon the grandparents.