Advocating for student rights for 40 years

In an ideal future, the Student Press Law Center would cease to exist. The office phones would sit silently in storage, covered in dust, as student journalists across the country called sources, not attorneys.

The only way that could happen is if the SPLC became irrelevant, SPLC Project Attorney Mike Hiestand said. In that scenario, students would have full freedom of the press, rendering SPLC’s services useless.

“I really hope that at some point there is no need for the SPLC — that the value of young voices is finally and clearly realized,” said Hiestand. “Young people have a voice and they see the world in a different way. They’re willing to look at things from a different perspective and we need to hear that voice.”

But as the SPLC celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Executive Director Frank LoMonte said there are too many goals he needs to reach before he can even consider stopping. He said he wants to focus on larger policy issues which would allow student journalists across the country to do their jobs with fewer barriers.

“It’s not enough to sit back and respond to individual calls for help,” LoMonte said. “We can do that all day long and play defense and at the end of the day if all you do is play defense, then you’re never going to score any goals. And we have to score some goals. We have to put some points on the board. We have to move the law affirmatively in a better direction for the protection of all journalists.”

But for now, that doesn’t stop the SPLC from helping students and advisors every day. In its 40 years, LoMonte estimates the SPLC has taken 60,000 phone calls, a service many students say has been invaluable in fighting censorship and keeping their media organizations open.

Zach Cohen, who was editor-in-chief of The Eagle, the student newspaper at American University, from 2012 to 2013, said he didn’t wait for a major issue to arise before calling the SPLC. He knew that establishing that relationship early and getting advice from LoMonte would make his job easier.

“I’m 21 years old, I’ve never run a newspaper before in my life,” Cohen said. “Frank has the benefit of having worked with so many college newspapers that he knows the best practices in general.”

Recognizing a need

The SPLC’s start wasn’t easy. In 1974, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson, famous for his coverage of the Watergate scandal and the civil rights movement, released a study about the state of high school journalism. The report, “Captive Voices,” argued that censorship in schools needed to end and identified the need for an organization that would stand up for students’ First Amendment rights.

The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial — which commissioned the report — partnered with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to create the Student Press Law Center. The RFK Memorial would pay the salary of the director and the Reporters Committee would take the SPLC under its wing.

But while the SPLC existed in theory, it didn’t have a director who would focus on making its mission a reality until Chris Fager — then an attorney at a law firm in Washington D.C., focusing on communications law — took over in 1975.

“The bottom line is that it was hard to do the project because no one cared,” Fager said.

One of Fager’s friends from law school became the lead attorney at the Reporters Committee and tried to recruit him to the SPLC. He wasn’t sold on the job until — while standing in the Reporters Committee offices trying to decide whether to get on board — he got his first call. On the phone was Stephen Bates, a high school student from Texas. Bates’ school was preventing him from releasing an independent literary magazine and he asked Fager for help.

“What happened to me personally — all the experiences of the oppression of high school — came back to me, and I thought, ‘this is going to be fun,’” Fager said, speaking of his general feelings during high school.

While helping students, Fager worked to build the SPLC’s reputation and influence. He formed an advisory committee of journalism educators, developed an attorney referral network and raised money.

He succeeded at getting the SPLC on the national radar — and on the front page of The Washington Post — when defending a student whose high school censored an article about students having unprotected sex.

“It became a national story,” he said. “The phones started ringing off the hook and we were overwhelmed.”

Fager left to practice law in 1978. Four new executive directors came and left.

In 1983, Marc Abrams, who was two years out of law school and held a master’s degree in journalism, took over. He had been driving cross country, from where he was temporarily teaching at the University of Oregon to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he was going to get another master’s degree, when his friend put up a job notice for the SPLC. He decided to skip Harvard.

“I knew this was my job,” Abrams said.

During Abrams’ two years at the SPLC he received about 800 calls from 48 states — all but Alaska and “for some bizarre reason” Arkansas, he said. He also focused on fundraising. The SPLC had been struggling financially, but Abrams left with $70,000 in the organization’s bank account.

At that point, the SPLC offices were “glamorous,” Abrams said sarcastically.

It was “two rooms that added up to the size of a medium living room, cluttered with second-hand desks and dented grey file cabinets and an IBM selectric, inside the Reporters Committee’s office,” in downtown Washington, D.C., “above a really crappy Chinese restaurant whose smells we smelled all day and whose cockroaches we received all day,” Abrams said.

He also hired Mark Goodman, who Abrams said, “stayed there for three geological epochs.” When Abrams left in 1985, Goodman, who was a summer intern finishing law school, took over as executive director for the next 22 years.

“It was very clear for me from the first few weeks I was there as an intern, that what I was doing actually mattered,” Goodman said. “I was helping people who didn’t have many places to go for that kind of assistance.”

Under Goodman’s leadership, the SPLC countered the effects of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 Supreme Court case ruling that high school journalists have less First Amendment protection than independent publications, making it easier for schools to censor student newspapers.

The SPLC became the “voice of opposition” by rallying national journalism education associations to vocally reject the ruling, Goodman said.

“It’s an odd achievement because it was achieved as a result of a loss,” Goodman said. “The best we could do was make sure the battle continued even after the loss occurred.”

In 2012, under LoMonte’s leadership, the SPLC started a “Cure Hazelwood” campaign to continue fighting against the court ruling’s effects on student journalism.

LoMonte took over for Goodman in 2008. He had worked for nine years as a journalist at newspapers in Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C., and then as an attorney in Georgia, often working with renewable energy companies that were fighting against larger utility companies. He sees a clear parallel between those cases and what he does at the SPLC.

“I never really liked being the lawyer for the big incumbent guy,” he said. “I always liked being the lawyer for the scrappy, upstart challenger and I think you have to bring that mentality to that work. You have to be the champion of the underdog, you have to believe in the power of the little guy.”

Empowering students

In 1989, Traci Bauer was a sophomore at Southwest Missouri State University and the editor of the institution’s student newspaper, The Standard, when she learned her campus security was hiding police reports.

She had answered an anonymous phone call asking why she didn’t write about a reported rape involving a basketball player, but information about the attack wasn’t among the stack of police reports that she received from campus security each week.

After she confronted security about it, they stopped giving her any reports, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“I had no money and didn’t know what to do next, so I called the SPLC,” she said.

Goodman took up her case and referred her to an attorney in Missouri who helped her pro bono. Goodman continued to provide support over the telephone and testified as an expert witness during her trial. A retired judge and another attorney volunteered to join her cause, and in the end she won.

“SPLC was there every step of the way,” Bauer said. “Mark was so awesome about letting me know that he was always there and he was there for moral support as well as legal support. It was very helpful, from that very first phone call until the day they had announced we had won.”

The movement for legislation to release campus crime information was already underway, but she said she believes her case helped it gain traction. She would later speak on panels with Goodman and the parents of Jeanne Clery, whose 1986 rape and murder at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, led to enough backlash to form the federal Clery Act. Under the act, any school that receives federal financial aid must release information to the public about crimes that happened on or near campus.

Bauer, who is now the vice president of digital strategy and development at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York, said her case was an example of a school trying to avoid embarrassment. It was in the process of changing its name to Missouri State University and the basketball team was going to the NCAA championship, so it wanted to avoid bad press.

In 2011, Clarence Polke, editor-in-chief of The Famuan at Florida A&M University, broke the story of the murder of a marching band drum major and kept following the story. The university wanted to write off the incident as a “tragic accident,” Polke said, and as a punishment for their coverage the school cut a significant portion of funding from The Famuan. The Student Government Association also tried to appoint a “newsroom liaison to monitor the newsroom.”

When she reached out to LoMonte and SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein, they connected her to a volunteer attorney, Rob Rivas. Rivas wrote a letter defending the legality of the student journalists’ actions and Polke sent it to “every high-ranking official at my university.”

Polke, who is now a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said the threat of legal action tempered the situation and the paper was able to keep their funding for that semester.

“What the SPLC did for me was to help me learn and respect the critical role the press plays and to guard and honor that truth at all costs,” she said in an email. “The SPLC taught me to fight any person or entity who would dare stifle or censor a voice because they didn’t like what was being said.”

Bates, the first student the SPLC helped, tried to create an independent literary magazine when he was 16 years old and spread it around the school, and administrators tried to stop him. In 1975, he called Fager, who wrote a letter explaining his rights and drew up a complainant. Bates never filed a lawsuit, but one of the school board members was upset enough at the ruling that he gave Bates the money to produce the first issue to distribute off campus.

Since then, Bates’ life has come full circle. He now teaches First Amendment law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and said he still believes that students need to be able to express themselves freely.

“Student journalists learn what kind of troublemaking and rabble-rousing they can pull off starting in high school and what’s a problem,” he said. “In the years since, I’ve been struck that public schools are intended in part to train people to be good citizens and they do that by restricting people’s rights as citizens in enormous ways because they want to retain good order in a nice environment, which is exactly what the First Amendment said you shouldn’t do. The First Amendment is about disorder and messiness.”

Cohen, the editor from American University, is now a web producer for the National Journal Hotline, a daily political briefing, located in The Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

“It’s funny being in a place that’s the epitome of the public’s right to know,” he said

Although Cohen never faced explicit legal threats, he said it was reassuring to learn that there are people willing to help students deal with legal and ethical issues.

“They taught me you don’t need to figure out everything on your own,” Cohen said.

Protectors of the underdog

LoMonte first realized the power student journalists have when his college newspaper sued the University of Florida in 1983 over access to public meetings. The newspaper had a volunteer attorney on hand, so they didn’t have to call the SPLC. But he said he sees a direct line from that moment in his life to where he is now.

“I remember very vividly going to the state court of appeals in Tallahassee and watching our volunteer lawyer argue that case for us, and coming away just blown away by the fact that our little pipsqueak lawyer could stand on equal footing with one of the most famous and expensive lawyers in America on the other side, that the law was this great equalizer — so that at least for 40 minutes in a courtroom, we were on equal footing with the University of Florida and had an equal chance to win,” he said. “That was such a rush to me.”

LoMonte said one of his goals is to empower students to be able to defend themselves against authority, an idea echoed by SPLC board member Mark Stencel, who is also the former managing editor for NPR Digital.

“It’s kind of a good thing in a way — that universities behave in that way from time to time — because it really does bring out the best in student journalists and makes us much more aggressive in our career,” Stencel said.

Goodman said it’s also a matter of proving to students that what they learn in school matters.

“In the process of representing students, we showed them that the Constitution has meaning and that it’s for everyone,” he said. “I always thought the worst thing a school district could do is teach about the Constitution in 10th grade civics class and then deny it exists the second it conflicts with real life. That would take our best and brightest and make them pretty damn cynical. That would be a tragedy. We sustain faith in the Constitution and that’s of incalculable value.”

Sommer Ingram, who has seen every side of the SPLC at work — in high school and college she watched her advisors deal with censorship, she worked at the SPLC as a summer intern and now while going to law school at Georgetown and interning with The Washington Post’s legal team, she serves as a board member — said she wants to make sure people understand and remember the overall mission.

“I hope the SPLC can be a voice of positivity,” she said. “I think often when we are involved — we submit briefs for litigation or we come out denouncing censorship — that it seems like our message is only negative, but I hope we can continue to work to promote the positive message that the SPLC is all about.”

Ernest Sotomayor, an SPLC board member and dean of student affairs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, reiterated the importance of the SPLC’s mission.

“It is the encouragement of the next generation coming up,” he said. “There will always be another generation. SPLC encourages them to have the courage to stand up for the principles of journalism, which is really what it’s all about. It’s talking truth to power and having the courage to mull ahead and try to tell the truth about the things that are going on in their communities.”

Fighting for transparency

When LoMonte talks about the need for transparency in schools nationwide, his voice changes from friendly to demanding. His speech transforms from simple conversation to impassioned rants, citing example after example of the people he feels have been wronged.

He knows what he wants and isn’t willing to compromise.

He’s starting by working to reform FERPA and fighting against its misuse. When the federal law was established in 1974, it was meant to protect student’s education records, but schools have used it to hide any information involving students, LoMonte said.

“When you talk to any journalist that covers education, one of their single biggest frustrations is the misuse of student privacy as an excuse to conceal embarrassing information and it is a constant, constant obstruction for journalists of all levels,” LoMonte said.

He credits the SPLC with bringing the misuse of FERPA to the national radar, leading to discussion about it across the country.

He also wants to end the secrecy behind college presidential searches, where students, faculty and the public aren’t allowed to give input into who controls their institutions.

“Right now we have a bunch of politicians sitting on boards of trustees who are stealing and hijacking that process,” he said. “They have hijacked that process because they want the presidents to feel accountable only to the trustees and not to the students and the faculty.”

His final push against secrecy is to make police records at private institutions available to the public, saying, “it’s outlandish that we have police officers running around with guns and badges arresting people without having to explain way,”

LoMonte also said he wants to tone down the “hysteria” surrounding social media, where students are being suspended and expelled for what they say online. He cited legislation introduced in Indiana in 2012 that would have allowed schools to discipline students for saying anything online that administrators deemed inappropriate. The SPLC stepped in and LoMonte explained to legislators the authority they were about to give administrators. Ultimately, the legislation was scrapped.

“They were about to give principals the ability to pass judgement on whether a student was being sufficiently polite on Facebook, on a Saturday afternoon in July,” he said.

It’s a lot of issues to tackle, but LoMonte, who usually works 12 hours days, seven days a week, doesn’t seem shaken.

“We don’t have the luxury of being frustrated. Literally,” he said. “We can mourn the dead after we win the war, but right now there is a war to be won and we do not have the luxury of being frustrated or tired or angry, we just don’t.”

This inability to stop is a unifying trait in several of the SPLC’s former directors.

“One of the challenging things when you work on a project like the SPLC is turning out the lights and going home, because it’s never done,” Fager said. “We worked like farm animals on projects all the time, working because there was just no end to that. It was sweeping back the ocean. I think we wanted to help as many people as we could.”

Abrams said being an editor of a student newspaper is “one of the biggest signs of success in the future.” Being able to protect those students was what drove him to work so hard, he said.

“I’ve got all the faith in the world that without student editors, God knows where we’d be now, because they become the best grown-ups,” Abrams said. “Because at an early age they are motivated, intelligent, organized, learning to make critical decisions in a proper way — that’s the full package.”