Student rights took center stage on World Press Freedom Day

Last week’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day was devoted to the theme of “21st century media,” and the central role of students as society’s information-gatherers was impossible to ignore — down to the gavel-to-gavel coverage supplied by student volunteers from Georgetown University.

The Student Press Law Center and 39 leading journalism groups from across America joined in urging the delegates to the UNESCO-sponsored event to keep the rights of students at the forefront of the first World Press Freedom Day ever celebrated on United States soil. The results were gratifying.

The tone was set by Eric Newton, longtime head of the journalism grantmaking program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and now senior adviser to the foundation’s president, whose organization was a prime sponsor of the May 1-3 festivities. In his remarks to the assembly, Newton framed the treatment of student journalists as a fundamental issue of human rights, on which the United States fails to live up to the promise of its ideals:

During these violent times, can America be at its generous best when making the case for freedom? It’s not an easy test. But we have to try: we need the moral high ground to show how freedom of expression underpins all human rights. We need to operate in a framework of freedom, exceptions strictly limited.

Our record is not what it could be. Student journalists, for example, are not well legally protected, nor are the increasing number of freelance and volunteer journalists, nor even all the full-time professionals.

Our own Secretary of State speaks eloquently on the ‘freedom to connect.’ But then our Pentagon says military employees should not look at the Wikileaks web site. Or Apple goes after the blogger who leaked the iPhone stuff. Or teachers won’t let students use cells. Or the Rev. Jerry Falwell blocks a local news web site from his students.

Each World Press Freedom Day concludes with a declaration that sets forth the consensus of the attendees challenging UNESCO and its member states to commit to improving conditions for journalists. The Washington Declaration explicitly recognizes the problem of  excessive censorship of students’ online speech. By the declaration, UNESCO member states commit to “take prompt and effective action to assure the safety of journalists, bloggers, and all those, including students and youth, who express themselves on digital media platforms from intimidation, threats, physical attacks, and attempts against their lives.”

This is a powerful message to the censors on campuses across our own country and around the world that they are on the wrong side of history, and that they are fighting a senseless battle to hold back change that cannot be stopped.

The Obama administration, and in particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invested personally in making World Press Freedom Day a success. “When a free media is in jeopardy, all other human rights are threatened,” Clinton told the delegates by video. “So in that spirit, let us continue to champion those who stand for media freedom, and let us continue to expose those who deny it.”

Young journalists, and those who support them, now have a commitment from the highest levels to assure that students can safely use electronic media to join the public discourse without fear of threats and reprisals. This isn’t a legally enforceable promise, but it carries enormous persuasive force. Students — and those who advocate for them — should readily cite it as evidence of the growing global consensus that censorship is a morally and educationally indefensible practice.