High school censorship calls to SPLC soar in 2000

As high school student journalists across America head back to school this fall, the latest SPLC numbers suggest they had better add one more item to their backpack: the phone number for a good First Amendment attorney.

Requests to the Student Press Law Center from public high school journalists needing free help on a censorship matter rose more than 41 percent last year. By our count, 518 public high school student journalists or their advisers contacted us in 2000 for legal help concerning a censorship issue. That number tops the previous high of 367 recorded during 1999, and marks the sixth straight annual increase.

Overall, in 2000 the SPLC staff responded to 2,129 requests from student journalists and their advisers seeking legal help, up 31 percent from the 1,624 calls received the previous year. In addition, we responded to 462 requests from individuals seeking information only or from news media seeking comment on student press issues.

Questions about censorship topped the list of concerns of those seeking legal help from the SPLC (41 percent), followed by libel and privacy law questions (19 percent), freedom of information issues (16 percent) and copyright law questions (11 percent).

Calls came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and ten foreign countries. Callers from California (237 calls), New York (184), Pennsylvania (137), Texas (122), Virginia (114), Ohio (103), Illinois (98), Missouri (81), New Jersey (80), Florida, Michigan and Washington state (each with 76) topped the list.

Almost 50 percent of those contacting the SPLC during 2000 did so via e-mail or through its Web site (www.splc.org), up from the 38 percent who used the Internet to contact the Center during the previous year.

SPLC VIEW: While one can’t be certain, our guess is that the spike in high school censorship calls is largely the result of two things. First, the Internet has made it easier for students to both find and contact us for help. While telephone calls into our office remained fairly steady, usage records for both our e-mail and Web site continue to show almost monthly increases. For students — particularly high school students whose access to long distance telephone service may be limited — the Internet is a convenient and natural alternative. The second reason for the jump is that there is simply more censorship taking place. In our post-Hazelwood, and now post-Columbine world, concern for student expression rights seems to be little more than a blip on the radar for most school officials focused on enforcing zero tolerance policies and enhancing their school’s public image.