How the Free Spirit Conference Fosters Student Press Freedom

2023 Free Spirit alum Laila Guzman

By Laila Guzman

Early Saturday morning on July 24, I enthusiastically boarded an airplane heading to Washington D.C. for what I knew was going to be a memorable experience. I would be representing the state of New York at the 2023 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. A jam-packed week of lectures, tours, newsroom visits and lunches could not have sounded more appealing. But what was most exciting was the chance to meet 50 like-minded rising high school seniors — one from each state and the District of Columbia — who had a passion for journalism and storytelling.

For five days, we delved into the importance of student journalism and the potential doors and opportunities that work at our respective high school newspapers and multimedia outlets could open in the future. We heard from speakers like Maria Hinojosa, the founder of Futuro Media Group; Allison Shelley, independent documentary photographer; and Sonya Ross, then-managing editor of Inside Climate News. They all shared their insights as to the importance of investigative journalism, diverse newsrooms and spotlighting marginalized communities.

Along with the emphasis on student journalism, the conference highlighted our First Amendment rights as student journalists. We covered the First Amendment basics: what are the five freedoms, when they are applicable, and common misconceptions surrounding these rights. Talk of freedom of the press was often woven into these guest lectures. During conversations with my peers, I learned that many of them had experienced tremendous censorship at their school media outlets. Multiple Free Spirit scholars shared that their school administrations had shut down their ideas or prohibited articles from being published.

This suppression finds its roots in the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which we reviewed on the first day of the conference. The high court reversed an appellate court decision, deciding that public schools do not have to allow student speech if they deem the material inappropriate. It left me wondering throughout my week in D.C. whether our First Amendment rights, especially as key participants in our school media outlets, are being wrongfully challenged.

Amid the discussions, a prevailing sentiment emerged: Journalism is under attack but is needed more than ever. In New York City, where I live, a staggering 73 percent of high schools do not have a student newspaper or website, according to a study by Geanne Belton, journalism professor and director of the high school journalism program at CUNY’s Baruch College. Student-led media outlets like newspapers, yearbooks or broadcast programs oftentimes serve as anchors for school communities. They also make it possible for students to hold school leaders accountable and provide a platform for students to express their opinions.

For example, during the pandemic, I wrote an article on the way virtual school affected students’ scheduled breaks. More specifically, I highlighted the way that school snow days would be impacted by virtual learning moving forward and how it would lessen or remove snow days completely. After the article was published, staff members reached out to share similar concerns. In response, the administration gave students the following snow day off.

My time at the Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference was an opportunity to protect and give strength to our First Amendment rights. By forging a network of students who are passionate about journalism and storytelling, the conference facilitated an environment of student journalists committed to considering, questioning, and opposing the challenges and potential repercussions of limiting First Amendment rights and student press freedoms. The wisdom of Al Neuharth echoed throughout the experience: “When the voices of democracy are silenced, freedom becomes a hollow concept. No man or woman should be sentenced to the shadows of silence for something he or she has said or written.”

Laila Guzman is a 2023 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference alum representing New York.

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Apply to be an Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholar.

High school juniors receive a $1000 college scholarship and all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C.