Student Press Freedom Day: Empower Journalists to Do Their Jobs

This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.

Student journalists should be able to count on the First Amendment as much as their professional counterparts — and not just because their work provides information along with a good learning experience.

They should be able to depend on the amendment’s protection of a free press as any citizen can, journalist or not.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Student journalism is too often relegated to second-class constitutional status, subject to review and censorship by school administrators because of errant court decisions over the past 30 years. Those administrators too often are more interested in avoiding controversy, criticism or a discussion of social issues a few parents might find objectionable.

As we take note of student journalists’ work on Feb. 26, Student Press Freedom Day, free press advocates are urging more than celebration. They’ve undertaken a national campaign, “New Voices,” which prods states to create greater legal protection for the journalism practiced in today’s high schools and colleges.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reports that as of January, New Voices legislation has been introduced in seven states: Hawaii, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

While wording of the bills differs from state to state, the SPLC says the proposals generally say student media “can only be censored if that media is libelous or slanderous, contains an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates state or federal law, or incites students to disrupt the orderly operation of a school. New Voices laws also prohibit retaliation against advisers who refuse to censor student journalists.”

Why are new laws needed? They’re the result of a legal tug-of-war since the 1980s between two historic Supreme Court rulings, with courts often ceding decisions, and censorship, to school officials.

In 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the court ruled that students — and teachers, for that matter — do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

But in 1988, in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the court held that Tinker does not apply when speech comes through school channels. The court ruled that high school officials were within their rights to remove articles students wrote about teen pregnancy and divorce because the paper was school-sponsored and its primary purpose was educational — and not for public consumption.

In plain language, that says to me: “You don’t shed your rights at the schoolhouse door, but you do have to park them in the principal’s office until you graduate.” The result of that approach too often is a bland product that neither educates nor informs.

The number of working journalists has plunged over the past 20 years, as industry economics have been disrupted by advertisers’ flight to the web and cities and counties continue to lose regular news outlets. A 2020 report by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that “over the past 15 years, the United States has lost 2,100 newspapers, leaving at least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 without any.”

Student journalists increasingly play a role in filling that news gap. The University of Michigan’s student-run paper, The Michigan Daily, has been the only regular daily news report for years in Ann Arbor. In many states, student journalists are now the source of much — or all — news reporting on the daily business of state legislatures.

High school and college journalists have reported on major stories, often when no other news outlets exist in their area. These stories range from accounts of false academic credentials claimed by administrators to dangerous local environmental conditions, rising unemployment and local economic challenges and recovery efforts.

As the SPLC notes, “Student journalists are providing this service against many odds, including threats of censorship, budget cuts, the sudden shift to remote learning and the personal toll of isolation, risk of exposure to COVID, risk of assault and harassment during public gatherings and much more.”

Opposition to eliminating censoring and control issues often seems rooted in school officials’ fear that students will abuse freedom of the press. But nationwide, adults differ — and have expressed strong support of student journalism.

In 2014, the last year in which the question was posed in a Freedom Forum national poll about the First Amendment, 68 percent of adults agreed that public school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student news media without the approval of school authorities. Only 27 percent disagreed. When the question was first asked in 2001, adults were evenly split on the question.

Empower journalists who are students with the mission of bringing news to their communities, be they schools or wider audiences. Provide the financial and advisory tools required to do that job. And then hold them accountable to deliver.

Experience says they will do well, and we all will be the better informed for it.

Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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