It’s about time to make censorship capsize on campuses across the country.
From New Jersey to California, last year was a tough year for student journalists. Student media has been defunded, penalized, and denied public information only for harnessing their first amendment right to the fullest.
Protesters blocked journalists from covering a rally at the University of Missouri last November. In a viral video, the protesters chanted “hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have to go” as they tried to block student journalists from taking photos. Signs by protesters (which were later removed) read: “No media. Safe space.”
No space is truly “safe” when a fundamental right such as freedom of the press is violated. As a third-year student journalist, I gazed at my laptop screen with a combination of anguish and horror as the video continued to play. Journalists are eyewitnesses to some of the most grisly situations reality can offer, including first amendment infringement.
At the end of the video, after looking to talk to communications assistant professor Melissa Click, she incessantly responded, “No, you need to get out.” She eventually asked other protesters to remove the student reporter from the scene. The nature of this incident was unsettling, but not unwonted.
Protecting freedom of the press is not always highly esteemed by school boards, student governments, and college administrations. Unfortunately, as print advertising is becoming harder to find with the digital age in full blossom, student newspapers are becoming increasingly reliant on funding through student government.
Of course, this stream of funding is the most enormous conflict of interest a newspaper can come across. This can leave critical student voices unheard, and barred away. In one the worst scenarios, by the hands of student government, a student media organization’s budget can be slashed narrowly as a result of expressing their most fundamental rights — the First Amendment.
Last year, 13 student-run media outlets at the University of California at San Diego had their funding cut. The 22-3 vote by the university’s student association came after an uproar over “offensive” content by The Koala, the school’s satirical newspaper.
Earlier last year, The Imprint at the University of Waterloo in Canada lost half of their office space after attempting to renegotiate a new contract with the student government. According to the organization’s board of directors, the paper faced other options such as eviction and an over 70 percent rent increase.
Leaders from The Imprint believe the student government’s failure to renegotiate a lease is meant as an attack on the paper’s critical coverage of the Student Union. Organizations such as the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Canadian Association of Journalists, and the Canadian University Press have joined in the fight to protect the paper’s freedom of expression.
Student Government-lead defunding efforts should be challenged by new, grassroots campaigns steered by student leaders, to protect free press. It’s crucial to openly advocate for institutional transparency.
For any democratic government, keeping the press silenced is fundamentally condemnable. Student government shouldn’t be treated any differently. Student senators should be held accountable for their actions against the press.
Matching up for funding losses is inevitable, but keeping a paper from falling into the tyranny of censorship is avoidable. It’s important for student media to advocate through student government for a non-discretionary budget pipeline based according to projected enrollment figures.
For high schools, censorship is often on an entirely different, and pitiless battlefront. Last November, a yearbook photo spread of a pregnant student at Mount Vernon High School in Virginia fell into a legal battle to remove the controversial piece by the school administration.
New Jersey has been a stage for numerous legal battles against student media in the last few years. Three years ago at Pemberton Township High School, The Stinger student contributor Kylie Sposato had a two column criticizing the school censored twice by the administration (including one article on censorship itself).
Journalism teacher Bill Gurden was called for “insubordination” by principal Ida Smith for uploading editions of the paper to Issuu.com. In the Pemberton Township School District manual: “with input from the Webmaster and the Technology Coordinator, are responsible for web page approval.”
Gurden disagreed, and argued that having the issues approved for print was enough for The Stinger’s PDFs to go online. Since then, Gurden was removed as an advisor and Smith has threatened to scrap the journalism class. Currently, Gurden is within a legal battle with the public school, suing Pemberton Township High School with a civil rights violation.
Two years ago at Northern Highlands Regional High School, the principal vetoed a news article from being published that was “unflattering to the school superintendent,” according to the Student Press Law Center.
It was eventually allowed to run, but with a new policy introduced banning the ability of students to appeal censorship decisions and use anonymous sources.
Fortunately, an effort to protect student journalists has grown out of the Garden State. In December, New Jersey Assemblywoman Donna Simon introduced the “New Voices of New Jersey,” which aims to protect student reporters and advisers from administrative retaliation. Simon is currently the only co-sponsor of the legislation.
The bill is part of a nationwide movement aimed at preserving freedom of the press to all students. The New Jersey bill was inspired by North Dakota legislation last April. As the first victory in the battle against censorship in schools across the country in the New Voices campaign, the North Dakota legislation allows student journalists to publish their voices freely, without the threat of administrative censorship.
Last month, Washington State introduced its own “New Voices of Washington” bill. The legislation prevents censorship across student media at both public high schools and colleges regardless of school-backed funding, or classroom production.
The New Voices movement is gaining ground across the country. Currently, the anti-student censorship movement, which is led by the Student Press Law Center, has campaigns in 20 states. Along with Washington and New Jersey, Missouri and Nebraska have also put forward “New Voices” legislation last month to protect the rights of student journalists.
These bills aim to fight against the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed public schools the right to censor student newspapers that are not public forums, as long as they have a “reasonable educational justification.”
Over the last 25 years, the Supreme Court’s decision has been toxic for all students across public high schools and colleges. Not enough has been done through legislation to challenge the Hazelwood case. Currently, only 10 states specifically have protections granted to student journalists against administrative censorship.
Student newspapers across the country have been subject to tyrannical behavior from administrators including cases censoring tattoos, and stories of sexual assault. Administrators have continued abusing their power under Hazelwood by crushing real stories, outside the realm of bowdlerizing trash.
Planting a marketing base in journalism classes brutally diminishes the value of free press. Student reporters should never be subject to having a story squashed by administrators for asking “negative” questions, or giving their school a “bad” image.
Hazelwood not only hurts journalists, but ruthlessly disregards the voices of all students, and fails to keep public employees accountable. It’s important for any student, regardless of their relationship with student press, to fight against censorship and join the New Voices movement to protect the sanctity of their institution.
Student media is much more than resume-building, money, extra-credit, or a social outlet. Instead, student media is about allowing future generations to exercise a fundamental individual right that transforms the way students perceive the world. Joining the fight against censorship is for more than just student journalists and advisers — it’s for the greater good of free speech.