SPLC marks four decades of unleashing captive voices

Forty years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Jack Nelson inspired a still-growing movement with these words: “Censorship is the fundamental cause of the triviality, innocuousness and uniformity that characterize the high school press.”

Nelson’s 1974 book, Captive Voices, vividly captured the frustration and disempowerment of being a young journalist forbidden from writing about “sensitive” issues at a time of violent social upheaval in which teens had a profound personal stake. His words led directly, in the fall of 1974, to the founding of the Student Press Law Center, which is entering its fifth decade as the strong right arm of the student media in all of its evolving forms.

There is a direct line between the now-middle-aged journalists Nelson met across America in 1973 and today’s newspaper staffers at Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, who are facing persecution for a principled stand against the use of “Redskins” as the school symbol. As this magazine goes to press, student editors at The Playwickian are facing a witch-hunt disciplinary probe – and even murmurs of felony charges – for the “crime” of publishing a newspaper without printing a concocted letter-to-the-editor planted by their school board to bait them into removing the incendiary mascot name.

These young crusaders are carrying on the tradition of truth-telling journalism about difficult civil-rights issues that Jack Nelson himself exemplified in a 60-year career that began at The Biloxi Daily Herald while he was still in high school. When Nelson died in 2009, he was eulogized by a colleague who remembered him as a hard-nosed journalist blessed with “by far the greatest sense of right and wrong of any reporter I’ve ever seen, and the greatest sense of outrage.” The capacity to recognize, and call out, outrages is peculiarly the province of the young. What is clearly heard, sharply observed and deeply felt becomes fuzzy and indistinct with age, for all but the rare Jack Nelsons among us.

On October 16, 2014, supporters of a free and courageous student press from around the country will gather at the National Press Club to mark the SPLC’s 40 years of service to our shared priorities. Fittingly, the keynote speaker will be Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, best known for his Pulitzer-winning reporting on government surveillance practices based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden – but also notable as the editor-in-chief of The Town Crier at Philadelphia’s Washington High School, who took his school to court over the confiscation of an October 1977 issue that featured stories about birth control and teen pregnancy. There is no more appropriate torch-bearer for the flame that Jack Nelson ignited.

Sponsors of the event include: WilmerHale LLP; Education Week; Hearst Corporation; Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP; Davis Wright Tremaine LLP; and the McCormick Foundation. There’s still time to become a sponsor at levels starting at $2,500 by contacting the SPLC.

Financially, the event will help build a “war chest” for the Student Press Law Center to better respond when press freedoms are threatened and access to government information is squelched. As importantly, the event will help focus the nation’s attention on the urgency of building more inclusive and transparent schools where every voice is valued and respected. To be part of the celebration – and of finishing the assignment Jack Nelson entrusted us with – get your ticket.