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.

Whether college journalists attending public institutions “are safe from the Hazelwood standard’’ is not at all clear, LoMonte added. So far, appellate court decisions have been split on the matter, but the “drift’’ of cases that do not involve college newsrooms seems to indicate that Hazelwood does apply, “so in the absence of the Supreme Court clarifying it and saying otherwise, there’s every risk that this same level of virtual total and complete institutional control will even apply to college student media, particularly if it’s the kind of college media that is supported in some way financially by the school, is advised by a school employee and is something that looks like it might be an extension of the journalism curriculum,’’ he said.  

To show how censorship in the high school student press plays out today Emily Master, now a journalist in Buffalo, shared her experiences as a reporter and editor-in-chief of her New Jersey high school newspaper. She said that it was a constant, four-year battle to be able to print stories that were pressing and relevant to the student population, and often where they were the only publication reporting on things like the legitimacy of a certain teacher’s degree.

To give students who face such censorship a voice, the Student Press Law Center has started the New Voices Initiative, which the Society of Professional Journalists has endorsed. The initiative introduces laws in individual states that strengthen press rights for students and protects their advisers from administrative retaliation.

LoMonte was adamant in saying that New Voices is not about giving students an unlimited amount of press freedom; rather, at the heart of the legislation is a checklist of unprotected speech. LoMonte said the list ends up simplifying the oversight and governance of student speech, LoMonte said, because it no longer relies on the subjective Hazelwood standard of what is an ‘educationally reasonable purpose’’.

“It [New Voices legislation] says: ‘here are the categories of unprotected speech: libel, invasion of privacy, obscenity, threat, bullying, things that incite people either to break the law or break school rules, or — going back to the Tinker case — commit a substantial disruption,’ ’’ LoMonte said. “The intent is . . . to bring things back to where they were before Hazelwood, which is not to say the same level of free speech you will have on a street corner, but the level of free speech for your every day level of school life. My bumper sticker for it is, ‘If it’s safe to say on a T-shirt, it’s safe to say on an editorial page.’ ‘’

Paron, a journalism educator at Baruch College in New York and an organizer for New Voices in New York state, said that the resources to begin one’s own New Voices campaign in your home state are available online. Right now, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Illinois, North Dakota, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington all have active New Voices laws. Bills are active in Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Michigan and Minnesota to introduce them.

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