State Law Should Guarantee Freedoms for Student Journalists

Editorial Originally Published in The West Bend Current 

During first period on Jan. 29, a school aide came to the door of my humanities class and told me that I was needed in the office.

At first I did not think anything of it as I was waiting for a letter of recommendation to be dropped off for a scholarship application. Much to my surprise, though, I found myself in the principal’s office. I was told that I was not allowed to write about a particular topic for the school newspaper. Sadly, this was not the first time I was censored this year.

That is why I feel compelled to endorse new legislation proposed by a group called New Voices.

Free speech and free press are protections granted to every U.S. citizen by the Constitution. Recently, the national New Voices campaign has ignited a call to state legislatures to extend and protect these freedoms to high school journalists.

A 1988 Supreme Court ruling granted censorship powers to public school officials over district-sponsored publications. However, states reserve the ability to protect students’ free press rights if they choose under the ruling.

For example, a measure in North Dakota specifies that censorship of student journalism (district-sponsored or independent) can only be applied if pieces contain slander, invade privacy, violate state/federal law, violate school policy, or interfere with school operations.

Legislation of the same caliber is being called for in Wisconsin by the New Voices group. Nationally, support for such actions has spread across partisan lines. The freedoms of the press and speech have been nationally deemed as imperative rights to protect for all citizens, including student journalists.

As a student journalist in West Bend, I have experienced first-hand the type of censorship this legislation would guard against.

First I was told that I could not cover student concerns when a West social studies teacher was controversially placed on administrative leave a week before semester exams in January. Although my intention was simply to present student viewpoints, I was told that due to personnel issues, I could not cover the story.

Most recently, I was denied the opportunity to write about a possible overhaul to the English curriculum because at this point it is “not a student-interest piece.” When I asked the administrator how curriculum could be considered not a student issue, I was told that it is not at this point, and the committee making these decisions should be able to work through them without outside interference.

In other words, I was forbidden to report the facts related to issues that students, residents, and other local media were already extensively discussing.

A more grim interference, however, lies not within my rights as a journalist but within my desire and rights as a student to both learn and practice authentic journalism.

As a newspaper, the staff of The Current has decided to pursue serious acts of journalism rather than list bulletin board highlights. We are not here to cover the score of the basketball game or what is for lunch this week. As editor in chief, I have been told by administrators that maybe we should write about “good” stories. We do run “positive” stories, such as a recent article about the talent show and an upcoming article about random acts of kindness. Sometimes, though, what needs to be reported on are not heartwarming topics, but more serious and possibly controversial topics.

We are here to investigate stories that students want to know about or what students should become informed about. As I wrote earlier this year, we are not a publicity arm for the district. We are a body of independent thinking student journalists who wish to simply represent and cater to our community audience. True journalism brings stories forward that must be brought to light. Serious journalists engage in investigation, not cheerleading.

Beginning last year and reaching new heights this year, the writers of The Currenthave faced new hurdles from the office. Personally I have been muted regarding two topics, and other writers have faced interference, too. For example, the office has required some articles be read and authorized by administrators prior to publication.

This is an entirely new circumstance for The Current, which historically has been allowed to exist as an independent, responsible body of student reporting and a vehicle for teaching authentic journalism. According to adviser Eric Beltmann, there has been more administrative interference this year than in the previous 12 years of his advising tenure combined.

This year the office has repeatedly asked me, “Are students really interested in this?” or “Do students really talk about this?” I am always surprised, because those questions make apparent how much district officials are out of touch with student concerns and our readiness to think critically about serious matters.

Almost every Current meeting is filled with students expressing awareness and curiosity towards topics such as administrator turnover or changes to curriculum, and there is a void of serious motivation to report on trivial events. As a student in the hallways, in the cafeterias, and in classrooms, I hear fellow students speculate and voice their concerns.  As a student myself, I feel as though few of my questions or concerns are acknowledged.

I want to explore serious stories and apply the skills I have gained by being a student in this district. Unfortunately, my learning is too often hindered by the same officials who are, I believe, charged with nurturing my learning environment.

Based on my experiences this year, I feel as though protection must be extended to me and my fellow student journalists. I firmly believe that journalists have a responsibility to practice ethical journalism and present a story that can prompt independent interpretation and inform the public. These practices and the ability to carry them out is first gained at school, a place where all learning should be cultivated.

Unfortunately, true educational growth might require a legislative watch dog to protect student journalists from the kind of censorship I have faced this year.

I deem censorship a crucial learning barrier that must be torn down, and therefore urge all readers to support the New Voices proposal to protect student journalists in Wisconsin.