Calls to SPLC legal help hotline jump in 2003

VIRGINIA — The Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center reports that calls from student journalists needing legal help to obtain access to government records and meetings in 2003 jumped over 35 percent from 2002.

A total of 355 high school and college student journalists contacted the Center for help on freedom of information-related matters last year, up from just 262 calls during the previous year. The Center’s finding echoes reports by commercial news media and citizen groups nationwide that, in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, government agencies have tightened control over previously available government information.

“Unfortunately, these numbers suggest that the student media — like all news organizations and the public at large — has been significantly affected by the growing trend toward government secrecy,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman.

“The fact that student journalists are often having to fight to see even the most routine records of public schools and other government agencies means that many young Americans are receiving a troubling message about the importance of public oversight,” said Goodman.

Overall, in 2003, the SPLC staff responded to 2,360 requests from individuals seeking legal help, up over 4 percent from the 2,258 requests received the previous year. In addition to providing legal help, the Center responded to 436 requests from individuals seeking information only or from news media seeking comment on student press issues. It marked the busiest year on record for the Center in the organization’s 30-year history.

As in previous years, questions about censorship topped the list of concerns of those seeking legal help from the SPLC (38 percent). Other frequent issues for which student media sought assistance: libel and privacy law (22 percent), freedom of information law (15 percent) and copyright law (11 percent).

Calls to the Student Press Law Center came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two foreign countries. Callers from California (317 calls), New York (223), Texas (156), Ohio (131), Missouri (109), Michigan (107), Illinois (103), Virginia (87), Massachusetts (85) and Pennsylvania (82) topped the list.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the only national legal assistance agency and information clearinghouse devoted exclusively to protecting and educating student journalists about their freedom of expression and freedom of information rights. The SPLC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. All legal services are provided to the student media free of charge.