SPLC working to promote, engage and inform

Journalists are excellent storytellers, creative thinkers,and proficient organizers of facts. Plus, they’re almost always the mostinteresting person at the party.

What they aren’t very good at is self-promotion. Think aboutthe last advertisement you got for your own hometown newspaper. Chances are,what was advertised was (a) we have coupons, (b) you can save money bysubscribing for more weeks, and (c) did we mention the coupons?

What’s almost never mentioned is the news – and that readingit makes you a smarter, better-rounded person. Journalists usually areexcellent storytellers, except when the story is their own.

Because those in scholastic journalism aren’t instinctiveself-promoters, they need advocates. That’s where the services of the StudentPress Law Center can be uniquely valuable.

In recent months, the SPLC has helped turn the tide withtimely intervention on several occasions when policymakers failed to considerthe impact of their decisions on the way students gather and report news.

In West Virginia, a reporter’s privilege bill very nearlymade it all the way through the 2011 legislative session without anyone takingnote that it left unpaid student journalists unprotected. That meant a salariedprofessional journalist could confidently promise confidentiality to a source,knowing that a court could not compel disclosure of a journalist’s privilegedinformation, but a college journalist working on the very same story could not.

The SPLC did take note, and launched a campaign of op-edarticles and editorials that resulted in a Senate floor amendment extendingWest Virginia’s reporter shield to anyone gathering news while enrolled in anaccredited educational institution. What could have been one of the nation’sworst shield laws for students became, overnight, probably the nation’s best.

In Virginia, the State Board of Education was poised toenact a set of highly restrictive rules curtailing out-of-school communicationsbetween teachers and students. Had the rules been enacted as proposed,teachers could have faced discipline for sending even innocent andbusiness-related messages to students via texting, Twit­ter or Facebook.

The SPLC persuaded the Board to delay the vote to entertainmore input, sounded the alarm among teacher groups, and generated a deluge ofcomments that convinced the Board its original proposal was overbroad. Amuch-improved version that removes the messaging prohibition passed in March.

In fulfillment of its advocacy mission, the SPLC made surethat the first-ever commemoration of World Press Freedom Day held on UnitedStates soil did not over­look the shortcomings of America’s own press freedomsfor those who are learning the First Amendment in theory but are denied itsbenefits in practice.

The SPLC assembled a coalition of 39 journalism andfree-speech groups who signed a joint letter urging President Obama to speakout against abuses of journal­ists’ rights on U.S. campuses just as hisadministration has done abroad. The letter appeared as a half-page ad in theApril 15, 2011 Washington Post, and it’s archived at www.splc.org/wpfd.

It is the SPLC’s commitment to stay engaged in the arena ofpublic policy on behalf of those in scholastic journalism with busy lives anddemanding ca­reers who cannot always be. Because you may be bashful abouttelling the world how miraculous and how vital your work is, but we mostcertainly are not.

Frank LoMonte, executive director