Thirty years later, SPLC still working to help

This fall, the Student Press Law Center will celebrate its 30th anniversary. For those not familiar with the SPLC’s origins, the story of how an organization devoted to defending the student media and educating young journalists about their free-press and freedom-of-information rights came into existence and continues to serve after three decades is an interesting one.

The beginning of the SPLC is most directly attributed to a group formed in 1973 to examine the state of youth media. The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial foundation formed a national Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism to study the problems and issues confronted by high school student publications around the country. The Commission, consisting of educators, school administrators, journalists, civic leaders and students, held hearings, conducted surveys and otherwise gathered information from those directly involved in high school journalism from coast to coast.

The Commission reported its findings in a 1974 book called Captive Voices: High School Journalism in America. The report offered some startling insights. ‘Censorship,’ the report said, ‘more than any other factor has a greater adverse effect on the quality and relevance of high school journalism.’

‘Where a free, vigorous student press does exist, there is a healthy ferment of ideas and opinion, with no indication of disruption or negative side effects on the educational experience of the school,’ the report concluded.

Based on this and other findings, the Commission recommended that a ‘national center advocating First Amendment guarantees for youth journalists should be established.’ That center should ‘circulate information on rights of free expression, receive and refer complaints to local advocates, and generally make every effort to encourage a consciousness and use of those rights among youth journalists. In this capacity, it should work with students, teachers, and advisers to support the efforts of each in behalf of First Amendment freedoms for youth journalism.’

By the fall of 1974, the Student Press Law Center was born, initially a joint project of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Since 1979 the Center has been an independent, non-profit corporation assisting both high school and college journalists when they confront any variety of media law questions or problems.

Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of the Commission in regard to censorship was the subject matter that it found most frequently the focus of controversy. Included in its top three categories of student writing under assault were stories that dealt with lifestyles and social problems, including teenagers and sex.

As our cover story illustrates, the students may have changed but the problems they face have not, even with the passage of 30 years. In 2004, as in 1974, student journalists who attempt to cover issues relating to sex often find themselves in the hot seat and threatened with censorship.

As requests for help received by the SPLC continue to grow each year, one suspects the organization will be around in 2034 and beyond. The advice, assistance and advocacy of the Student Press Law Center are still much in demand, and the SPLC remains committed to helping another generation of young journalists create the ‘healthy ferment of ideas and opinions’ that makes both our schools and our nation strong.