High School Students, Teachers Confront Student Media Censorship

A survey of high school student journalists and their media advisers attending a national scholastic journalism convention indicates that censorship is a fact of life in many schools.

Of the 6,406 students and teachers who attended the National High School Journalism Convention in Washing, D.C., Nov. 6-9, 2013, 464 students and 51 advisers responded to survey questions asking about their experiences with censorship of student media.

Significant numbers of both students (25 percent) and advisers (17 percent) said school officials had told them not to publish or air something. Thirteen percent of advisers reported a school official reviews the content of their student news medium before it is published or aired. And 52 percent of students said someone other than student editors had the final authority to determine the content of the student media they advise.

In addition, 7 percent of advisers said school officials had threatened their position as adviser or their job at the school based on content decisions their students had made.

Student and adviser respondents both indicated self-censorship was an issue they confronted. Twelve percent of students and 13 percent of advisers said their staff had decided not to publish something based on the belief that school officials would censor it.

The survey was administered and the results tabulated by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University on behalf of the Student Press Law Center with the support of the convention sponsors, the National Scholastic Press Association and the Journalism Education Association. The results are not intended to represent a random sampling of students nationwide, but are an anecdotal indication of their experiences and those of their advisers. The results were released Feb. 25 in conjunction with Scholastic Journalism Week 2015.

The respondents to the survey represented students and teachers from 25 states and included those working with newspapers and newsmagazines, yearbooks, websites and television broadcast programs. More than half of the respondents were from schools with between 1,000 and 2,000 students, but 12 percent were from schools with fewer than 500 students and over one quarter were from schools with more than 2,000 students. Almost 57 percent of advisers and 51 percent of students responding to the survey were from states that have laws protecting student press freedom.

“These national conventions attract the best student journalists in the nation,” said Professor Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State. “If half of these outstanding students are from states with student press freedom laws, and yet over 52 percent still say they are not allowed to make the content decisions for their publication, it shows how extensive the censorship problem is.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier limited the First Amendment protections afforded public high school student journalists. However, the ruling did not require school officials to censor and nine states and the District of Columbia have disavowed reliance on Hazelwood by state statute or regulation.

“In three years of conducting this survey, this is the lowest level we’ve seen of students and advisers reporting that they practiced self-censorship, and I think it is no accident that the attendees were disproportionately from states like California, Colorado, Iowa and Kansas that statutorily protect the freedom of the student press,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit legal information and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

“Time and again, we’ve seen that state legal protection really works, and it’s absolutely necessary for students to learn and teachers to teach journalism effectively. When students know the law is on their side, they take ownership of their publications, take pride in the product, and do their most fearless work,” LoMonte said, noting that a bill to protect student journalists against censorship recently passed the North Dakota House with no negative votes and is given a good chance of becoming law this year.