SPLC responds to Seattle Times editorial on Washington student free press bill

A big part of our job here at the Student Press Law Center is helping young people understand and appreciate the role of the media in a free society and the importance of press freedom to all people. That job has never been more of a challenge than it is today for two reasons. First, school censorship of the student press has become so institutionalized in many communities that a generation of young people believe it’s only appropriate that government officials dictate what the public may read, watch or hear.

But the other reason is one that’s especially galling to us, given our organization’s mission: time and again, young people see a commercial news media that believes the First Amendment should only be big enough to cover its own behind and that press freedom really isn’t that important unless it is somehow the direct beneficiary of its protection. (There are exceptions, especially among the organizations of professional journalists and a growing group of individual reporters and editors who understand that the future of a free press is in the hands of the next generation. But on editorial pages around the country, reading of support for student voices is the rare exception, not the rule.)

Today, the Seattle Times published a mind-bogglingly naive editorial opposing a bill pending before the Washington legislature that would provide basic (and minimal) free press protections to public high school and college journalists. The bill proposed in Washington is similar to those that have been enacted in six other states, none of which have experienced the dire educational consequences the Times editorial suggests will result. (Ask anyone involved in high school education in Iowa, has student journalism suffered since their student free expression law was enacted in 1989? Just the opposite, it’s only grown stronger because students and school administrators have a clear definition of their legal rights and responsibilities.)

Yet the Times believes the bill would not allow journalism teachers to teach “editorial judgment,” implying that the only way to do that is from censorship by a school official.

The Times’ solution: make the adviser the censor, the one who has the final say over the content of the publication. It’s a system reminiscent of the old Soviet Union; let the government appoint the censors (who of course are paid by the government and whose jobs depend on keeping their government employers happy) and suddenly the censorship isn’t a problem any more, it’s “editing.”

The irony, of course, is that in Washington state (and everywhere else), high school journalism teachers are the biggest proponents of these student free expression laws. (Both the Washington Journalism Education Association and the state’s largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association, endorsed the bill.) The educators on the front lines of teaching journalism in American schools don’t want to be determining the content of their students’ publications; they want to teach and advise. They know that the only way they can instill the true meaning of the First Amendment in the hearts of young Americans is to teach them by example what a free press and free expression means.

And they also know that if they are the ones responsible for making content decisions, their jobs will be on the line if they let anything that reflects negatively on the school see the light of day, no matter how factually accurate and journalistically sound it might be. The Seattle Times editorial board could not be bothered with those facts.

So if I am one of the more than 100 young people who packed a hearing room of the legislature last week to show their support for the bill (or the thousands of their peers who couldn’t get out of school but were there in spirit), what do I make of this? Once again, the commercial news media has betrayed us. They are desperate for us as readers to stop the precipitous decline in circulation of their publications, but they can’t be bothered to consider our perspective on the issues that matter to us most and that are directly related to the future of their profession.

Our work at the Student Press Law Center got harder today. But we aren’t giving up. With the support of many allies in the commercial media and education, we will continue our efforts to help high school and college students understand that a free press is really as important as the First Amendment suggests. Too bad the Seattle Times did the exact opposite.

By Mark Goodman, SPLC executive director