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Re-balancing press rights for students

For as long as there have been student newspapers, there have been administrators with their own ideas about what should and should not be printed and disseminated in their schools. The First Amendment rights of student journalists were at the forefront of conversation at a panel at SPJ’s region 1 conference focusing on new legislation designed to strengthen student press rights. Titled “New Voices: Freeing the Campus Press,” the session featured Frank LoMonte, Katina Paron and Emily Masters.

LoMonte, the director of a think tank on government transparency at the University of Florida, began the session by pointing out that it is extremely rare that the free speech rights of protesters and other interest groups are curtailed by the government or by any government official. However, in high school newsrooms and even some college news organizations, student journalists are routinely censored or restrained in what they can cover, what quotes they can use, and especially how they can depict the school’s image.

Often schools will stop stories from being published through prior review, and it is required that the principal read every issue before it is printed and censor anything that he or she sees fit, panelists said. The stories and content that they choose to omit are generally thought to show a negative image of the school to alumni, parents, or students coming in the school in subsequent years. 

The rules

At the most basic level, just how First Amendment protections apply to student journalists depends on whether their school is public or private. Because the First Amendment is designed to protect individuals from government actions and private schools are not considered to be arms of the state, the First Amendment does not apply to private schools; instead, students at private schools are subject to the rules and regulations of the institution. In contrast, public schools are considered to be an arm of the state, so First Amendment protections apply.

For years, the level of First Amendment protection for public school students working on school-sponsored publications stemmed from Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a 1969 case involving three high school students who wore black armbands to school as part of a peaceful protest of the Vietnam War. The case went all the way to the  Supreme Court and established the standard that school officials could not censor student speech unless they could show it would cause substantial disruption to school activities.

The free-speech balance was changed in 1988 with another Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. This case involved students at a high school outside of St. Louis who wanted to write about social issues like teen pregnancy. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of school officials to censor student speech, establishing a new standard for all student journalists in public high schools, namely that school officials can censor speech if they can show an “educationally reasonable basis’’ for the censorship.

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