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OPINION

Add student press freedom to the syllabus

Posted on February 22, 2021

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Dave DiFilippo cartoon

#StudentPressFreedom

Friday, Feb. 26, marks Student Press Freedom Day, a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of student media and highlight the challenges it faces. Organizers encourage people to discuss their experiences and share the best examples of high school and college journalism on social media with the hashtag #StudentPressFreedom.

This year's theme is "Journalism Against the Odds." To learn more, visit www.StudentPressFreedom.org.

cfriedman@restorationnewsmedia.com | 252-265-7813

Corey Friedman

Corey Friedman

In Indiana, student journalists say Plainfield High School prevented them from reporting a classmate’s arrest in a string of sexual assault cases.

In North Carolina, Piedmont Community Charter School used black markers to censor senior quotes in its yearbook, and Richmond Early College High School confiscated some yearbooks and refused to distribute the rest, citing senior quote controversies.

In Ohio, Wadsworth City Schools’ superintendent yanked Wadsworth High School student newspapers from the racks because the headline “Black History Month in a White School District” raised eyebrows. Census data lists the city’s population as 95.9% white.

These examples aren’t the exception; they’re the rule. High schoolers join student publications to learn reporting, editing and publishing fundamentals, and administrators deliver heavy-handed lessons in censorship and abuse of authority.

Schools run roughshod over student scribes simply because they can. In the poorly reasoned 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that student-edited high school media is subject to administrative control. Students enjoy less expressive freedom in their school newspapers, yearbooks and broadcasts than they do in the hallways, where the landmark 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines ruling protects political speech and activism.

Changing the status quo doesn’t require a high-stakes court battle. Fourteen states have enacted New Voices legislation to shield student journalists from censorship, and seven more — New York, New Jersey, Texas, Missouri, Nebraska, Kentucky and Hawaii — are considering bills this year.

For skeptics wary of letting the proverbial inmates run the asylum, it’s worth noting that the so-called adults in the room have amassed an abysmal track record. The most common causes of high school censorship are viewpoint-based discrimination (the principal doesn’t like your politics) and image control (the story makes the school look bad).

Those aren’t valid reasons to interfere with students’ coursework. While some high school publications are extracurricular activities, most are produced in journalism and communications classes. And when principals swoop in to play censor, they undermine professional educators and throw out the approved curriculum to impose their own hasty, half-baked judgment calls.

The Journalism Education Association, a national organization for teachers and advisers, has endorsed New Voices laws, along with the National Scholastic Press Association and Associated Collegiate Press. That’s because the bills curb administrators’ worst impulses, but they also require students to report and publish responsibly.

“New Voices legislation is not a blank check for libel, for student journalists to hurt other students, for unrestrained freedom to do harm,” a joint statement from the NSPA and ACP reads. “It supports trained journalism educators and administrators who teach, train and challenge students to be both engaged and responsible. It protects student journalists to explore the issues of the day, to examine and report on controversies, to seek solutions, to help fellow students navigate the challenges of their school, their city, their state, their country and their world.”

Whatever their motives, opponents can’t credibly claim that letting principals and superintendents suppress unflattering stories serves any legitimate educational purpose.

As steep declines in advertising revenue hobble the U.S. newspaper industry and take grizzled watchdogs off the beat, student journalists are filling the gap to prevent communities from becoming news deserts. They’re combing through public records, scoring scoops and holding local governments accountable.

Editors at Burlington High School’s BHS Register in Vermont earned national praise after reporting in 2018 that a state agency had charged a school guidance counselor with six counts of unprofessional conduct. An interim principal told students to take the story offline. They pushed back with help from First Amendment advocacy groups, and the school board ultimately voted in their favor.

Friday marks Student Press Freedom Day, a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of student media and highlight the challenges it faces. Organizers encourage people to discuss their experiences and share the best examples of high school and college journalism on social media with the hashtag #StudentPressFreedom.

It’s also a golden opportunity to call and write your local legislators. Student journalism in the public interest deserves protection, but in every state without a New Voices law on the books, it’s more likely to be squelched than celebrated.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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