SPJ resolution urges members to fight student press censorship

FLORIDA — The Society of Professional Journalists wants student journalists’ voices to be taken seriously.

North Dakota passed the John Wall New Voices Act this spring, protecting student journalists in public K-12 schools and universities from administrative censorship. The SPJ wants to help protect student journalists’ rights in other states, so it unanimously passed a resolution urging members to take action.

“The Society urges its members to support and actively encourage the passage of similar state legislative protections for the independence of student media across the country,” reads Resolution 9, which was passed Sunday at the SPJ’s 2015 Excellence in Journalism convention in Orlando, Florida.

The 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District V. Kuhlmeier ruled that student newspapers that are not established as a public forum for student expression can be censored by school officials who have a “reasonable educational justification” if the censorship is viewpoint neutral. Student press advocates have said the decision stifles student journalists’ free speech and has led to unnecessary censorship and dismissals of journalism advisers.

Currently, only a handful of states have added protections in place for student journalists. There are two ongoing campaigns against Hazelwood in Michigan and Maryland.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and SPJ member Michele Day submitted the resolution to encourage similar campaigns across the country.

The resolution condemns punitive prior review policies, the dismissals of several school journalism advisers in recent years and the disproportionate impact of censorship on young women, who make up the bulk of high school newsroom staff — the central focus of the SPLC’s Active Voice campaign.

It’s a first step in a long, contentious battle against student media censorship, said SPJ board member Michael Koretzky.

“Talking’s really nice and supporting and condemning is really nice, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be enough,” Koretzky said. “All the journalism organizations that care about this sort of stuff are going to have to focus their efforts with laser beams that, once you focus on one point, can burn holes in steel.”

SPJ wants to expand its “rapid-response team” for student media censorship by working with other journalism organizations, such as the College Media Association, the Associated Collegiate Press and the Student Press Law Center, he said. The existing collaboration, known as the J-Team, had its first training effort in Iowa in August to help student journalists from Muscatine Community College.

“The next time someone messes with the college press, they can hit one panic button and the alarms go off in the headquarters of all these different journalism groups simultaneously,” Koretzky said.

The resolution stresses that student journalists should be taken as seriously as professional ones, said Sonny Albarado, an SPJ board member and projects editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Albarado also decried the recent trend of college newspaper advisers being dismissed from their positions. Journalists and organizations throughout the country rallied together in outrage earlier in September when Butler University replaced the campus newspaper’s adviser with a university spokesman, who has since left the position.

“To me, it’s all part of the effort by college administrators to basically put their own PR spin on their institutions and not allow any free exchange of information about the realities of their schools,” Albarado said.

The resolution encourages journalists in other states to support anti-Hazelwood legislation like the New Voices Act in North Dakota, he said.

“I’m proud of SPJ for stepping up and supporting these efforts,” he said. “It’s part of our mission.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at 202-974-6317 or by email.