LOEKS: Students deserve First Amendment protections

Editorial Originally Published in Scottsbluff Star Herald 

How do you teach student journalists about free speech?

Well, in some schools, students learn about their rights — or lack of rights — to free speech when they find themselves censored. In Virginia, pictures of a pregnant teenager became a censorship battle recently when the yearbook staff sought to feature the real lives of some of its students. One spread, titled “The next generation,” featured students posing with their children. The school’s interim principal took issue with Instagram photos chronicling a student’s pregnancy with photos of her growing belly and some quotes about the realities of teen pregnancy. Unlike some of the reality shows seen by our children today, it doesn’t sound like the feature sugarcoated pregnancy, with quotes such as “Having a baby is hard. Wait and focus on your education.” From the stories that I read on the piece, it sounded responsible and well-thought out.

I remember the woes of student journalism. As an editor for the high school newspaper, I remember regular battles with the principal over a student staff member’s cartoons — which only served to make the cartoon more popular among the students, to my chagrin. In another instance, a fellow student and I were sent back to the editing room after writing an editorial about a school board decision that affected a student who had been home-schooled during her high school career. The principal told us he didn’t really disagree with our points disagreeing with a school board decision that did not allow the student to graduate with her class. He just felt we should remove references to the school board and its decision. I also remember being told during that conversation that I should be grateful for the opportunities that I’d been afforded and I should consider that when re-writing that editorial.

Most people don’t realize that high school and college newspapers are censored. However, since 1988, when the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, it’s pretty much been a fact of life. You could find yourself censored if administrators or school staff object to an article. In the Hazelwood case, public high school administrators at a St. Louis, Missouri, school had censored stories concerning teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children from a school-sponsored student newspaper.

On Monday, Sen. Al Davis, of Hyannis, introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would allow college journalists to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media such as student newspapers, regardless of whether the publication is supported financially by the school.

I emailed Sen. Davis, who said he introduced the bill because he is a strong believer in the Constitution of United States and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the press, he said.

“College students at public institutions need a free and independent press to address issues which are relevant to students, and a press in which they can place full confidence,” he said. “Students at that age are eligible to vote, eligible to serve in our military, and should have the same protections as do the general population. We need to protect the voice of the popular and the unpopular at colleges, where a great deal of intellectual discussion takes place among students, faculty, and the like.”

Davis says the bill was inspired by similar legislation passed in other states to prevent school administrators from blocking unflattering stories.

The bill joins a nationwide movement, called the New Voices USA Movement, inspired by a North Dakota bill to offer stronger protections to high school and college students. In North Dakota, a measure took effect in August that would offer stronger protections to high school and college students. According to articles on the bill, North Dakota school administrators can only exercise prior restraint of school-sponsored media if it is libelous or slanderous; constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; violates federal or state law; or incites students to commit a crime, violates a school policy or disrupts school operations.

I’d argue that a couple of those — violating a school policy or disrupting school operations — can be subjective depending on the administrator. Case-in-point, in November, University of Missouri mass media professor Melissa Click — a school known for journalism and a teacher that you would think would uphold the rights of student journalists — sought to have a student removed from covering the protests of Concerned Student 1950. The teacher’s call “for some muscle” to remove the student made headlines across the U.S. If anything, Click’s case is a perfect demonstration of how even the most well-intentioned administrators and school personnel can also get wrapped up in emotion when it comes to censorship issues.

Davis’ bill doesn’t apply to high school journalists and I was disappointed to see it did not. I asked him why: “I did not include high school journalist and journalism students in the bill because I am targeting students at our nation’s colleges and universities who are more mature, more intellectually curious, and closer to adulthood. There is a significant difference between a high school sophomore (who may not be old enough to drive), and a college senior who may be married, have children, be serving our nation in the national guard, and carries a full-time job. This bill recognizes those differences.”

I won’t address the statements of maturity among our high school students, but I would say that my own experiences and the experiences of other student journalists cited across the United States leads me to believe that high school journalists may need the protection of such a bill even more so than the college students.

Perhaps I was fortunate as a high school and college journalism student, but as an editor, I had a steady awareness of student censorship issues and cases and my responsibility to represent other student journalists. That responsibility was never far from our minds when we were addressing an issue that administrators, faculty or even parents may take issue with. We were always careful, with the help of our journalism instructors, to approach such issues with balance.

However, at least headway has been made. The New Voices USA is a network of state-by-state campaigns to pass anti-censorship legislation that will grant extra protections to student journalists. The Student Press Law Center tracks state-by-state laws and pending campaigns through the movement. According to the New Voices tracker, only three states have protections for both high school and college students. Six states have protections for only high school students. Twenty states, including Nebraska, have campaigns underway for protections of college or high school journalists. Such campaigns teach our students that they do have a role in our society, to be thoughtful, to be continually learning and to be advocates for their causes in respectable ways.

For more information about student censorship, visit the website of the SPLC, http://www.splc.org. The SPLC advocates for student First Amendment rights and a variety of information, including talking points on the New Voices Movement, is available.