Support Freedom for Student Journalists
By: Lisa M. Rand
To raise awareness of the restrictions on student press freedom and the need for widespread changes, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is calling for students around the country to plan and lead events to demand #StudentPressFreedom on Wednesday, January 30. The SPLC highlights that the critical work of journalists in a democratic society requires protecting freedom of expression.
A free press cannot flourish where writers fear censorship or retaliation.
The New Voices Project of SPLC is a grassroots movement that advocates for protection of student press freedom. They provide model legislation and urge that First Amendment rights are protected in high schools and colleges. At present, only 14 states have legal protections in place for journalists in public high schools.
Advocacy efforts tend to proceed state by state, and on an emergent basis as censorship cases reach the courts. In March 2018 the American Bar Association publicly acknowledged the urgency of New Voices work and voiced support for student journalists in an ABA Journal article by David L. Hudson Jr. Also in March, OIF blogger Tess Wilson covered New Voices work and a press freedom bill under consideration in Missouri.
What does New Voices legislation look like? In its legislative efforts the New Voices project calls for a return to the Tinker standard, a case where the Supreme Court solidly recognized that students have a right to express a point of view, even one deemed controversial by the administration or school community. In addition to restoring Tinker, laws should extend protection to students in colleges and universities, both public and private.
In Tinker v. Des Moines, Justice Abe Fortas memorably wrote for the majority, “It can hardly be argued that teachers or students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.” The wearing of armbands to express a political opinion (protesting the Vietnam War) was deemed protected speech in a 7-2 decision on February 24, 1969.
Freedom of expression provisions established in Tinker have eroded substantially, even as the forums for expression have become more diverse. In recent years, student journalists have written articles on many controversial topics, and these articles either were removed by administration before publication, removed from websites after posting, or resulted in disciplinary action.
In contrast to Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 30-year-old decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier permitted a school principal to censor student press as a “school-sponsored” organization. Too often in the years since Hazelwood, this decision has been used as an excuse for censoring content so a school can avoid controversy.
The SPLC keeps an updated map where interested parties can see the progress in achieving press protections. It is encouraging to see a push to ensure the upcoming generation of reporters has freedom to share their stories. However, a federal statute is urgently needed. Students in some states should not have greater constitutional protection because of geography. Beyond schools, federal courts have refused to recognize laws protecting journalists from revealing confidential sources. The ACLU has covered this extensively.
Virginia is a recent addition to the list of states working actively toward approving legislation. In January Virginia representation Chris Hurst introduced House Bill 2382 to protect the work of student journalists from administrative censorship. The bill was unfortunately defeated 5-3 in an Education Subcommittee on January 28. “Thorough and vetted articles and news stories in student media shouldn’t be subject to unnecessary censorship by administrators,” Hurst said. The institution would be allowed to interfere only if content violates federal or state law, invades privacy unjustifiably, creates clear danger or includes defamatory speech. A former journalist himself, Hurst recognizes the need for protections to go beyond public schools and eventually hopes to extend First Amendment rights for journalists into private schools as well.
Over the past year student journalists have encountered a number of censorship challenges. A July 1, 2018 story in the New York Times mentions instances in California, Texas, and Utah where student journalism was censored. Further, when articles deemed unfavorable by the administration are published, faculty advisers have found themselves on unpaid leave, or without a job. New Voices legislation would protect advisers from retaliation, and ensure that they are able to properly teach ethics and procedures for investigative journalism.
On the good news end, in September 2018 students in Burlington, Vermont won a case when their principal decided to rewrite media policy based on the New Voices law. Student writers had printed a story about unprofessional conduct of a staff member and were asked to remove the story, which the principal deemed “substantially disruptive to the educational mission.” Their response was to seek legal advice, and their case was successful thanks to the New Voices Act which had been signed by Vermont governor Phil Scott in 2017. The experience of these students solidly illustrates the urgency of protective legislation.
Teenagers have a right to tell the truth, and they have a right to write about social and political issues. Rebecca Schneid, a co-editor in chief of The Eagle Eye at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rightly describes the role of student journalists: “Your job is to talk about the important things happening in your community.”
A free press is critical for an informed public, and to keep our government accountable. The upcoming generation of writers needs to know that the Constitution is theirs.
Lisa M. Rand is the youth services coordinator at Boyertown Community Library in southeastern Pennsylvania, a role that carries a special interest in protecting youth access to diverse programs and materials. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa developed a passion for Constitutional Law and First Amendment issues while at Simmons College, and continued her studies at the New School in New York City. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.