Free the press — all of it — starting this World Press Freedom Day

In a recent speech to students at George Washington University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the power of online media to bring about positive social change. She focused on the work of young people in Syria, who used a Facebook group and a YouTube video to expose the beating of elementary-school students by two of their teachers, who were promptly fired.

This uplifting story highlights the ability of the Internet to empower previously unheard voices, allowing all citizens – even the youngest – to be heard on topics of public concern.

But the story becomes somewhat less inspiring in view of the fact that the Syrian students’ Facebook page would, in many United States jurisdictions today, be regarded as a punishable disciplinary offense.

Consider the case of Taylor Bell, an 18-year-old high-school senior in Fulton, Miss. In January, Bell was suspended from school for seven days and consigned to five weeks in “alternative school” after posting a rap song on Facebook attempting to call attention to the allegations of female students that members of the school coaching staff touched them inappropriately.

Bell’s family is suing in U.S. District Court, alleging that the discipline violated his First Amendment rights. But even if his description of the facts proves entirely true, it is far from certain that the federal courts will view his speech as legally protected.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court stirringly declared 42 years ago that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” today’s reality is quite different. Under the guise of preventing student-on-student “cyberbullying,” schools are asserting the right to control what students say online during their off-hours, even if the speech addresses legitimate policy issues and no student is victimized.

Last week, the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a disappointing ruling that failed to clarify the boundaries of schools’ authority over students’ off-campus, online speech.

In the case of Doninger v. Niehoff, a three-judge federal panel refused to decide whether a school violated the First Amendment in punishing a Connecticut high school student for using coarse language to criticize school administrators on an off-campus blog. Instead, the court tossed the case out on the grounds that – even if the speech was legally protected – the state of the law is so confused that administrators could not have known whether they were violating the student’s rights.

The judges appeared persuaded by the school’s argument that, when a student uses her blog to engage members of the public to call and email the school to protest a school policy decision, that action is so “disruptive” that the speech should be constitutionally unprotected. In other words, an effort to involve the public in influencing the outcome of a government decision – something that would be called “civic engagement” if we saw it happening in Libya or Egypt or Tunisia – may be grounds for discipline in Connecticut.

Dignitaries from around the globe will gather in Washington, D.C., on May 3 to mark World Press Freedom Day, an event created by UNESCO in 1993 to highlight the importance of an independent news media. The democratizing power of online “new media” is the focus of this year’s commemoration.

What is happening at schools and college across America is, of course, qualitatively different from the killing and jailing of journalists, bloggers and activists in dictatorships across the developing world. Their courage and their plight will, quite properly, be the focus of World Press Freedom Day. To imply that students in the United States face conditions comparable to those in strife-torn countries would insult the sacrifice of brave correspondents such as Ahmad Mohamed Mahmoud, shot by government security forces in Egypt as he tried to film a demonstration.

But the fact that American public officials do not shoot their critics – just expel them from school, shut down their media outlets and fire their teachers – is hardly a basis for civic pride. Rather, it should be a source of national shame and embarrassment.

Students are at the forefront of social change in every society, and those who use the media to express provocative ideas often suffer repression – as witnessed by the recent five-year sentence imposed on a 19-year-old student blogger in Syria, after a closed-door trial on what the U.S. State Department denounced as “spurious” spying charges.

America’s legal system is better than that, but its protections remain incomplete.

In 1988, the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision greatly diminished students’ legal protection in school-funded, on-campus media outlets – unleashing school administrators to remove newsworthy stories exposing unsanitary bathrooms, antiquated libraries and ineffective sex-education programs.

But Hazelwood at least left students with the alternative of self-funded, off-campus media, in which they could candidly discuss their concerns with the full benefit of the First Amendment. With schools expanding their jurisdiction into students’ online speech, that assumption may no longer hold true. Incongruously, the ubiquity of online publishing that has freed journalists and activists elsewhere to share their messages with less government interference is having the opposite effect on students in the United States, who may not be safe from the censor’s grasp anytime and anywhere they write about their schools.

The full promise of the First Amendment will remain unfulfilled so long as America’s most vulnerable journalists experience freedom of speech as an academic concept and not a reality.

The delegates to World Press Freedom Day will leave Washington, D.C., with their work unfinished unless their concluding declaration includes a commitment to work toward freeing all of the press – at home and abroad – to perform the irreplaceable civic function on which a free society depends.