Edward Fitzpatrick: Student Teaches Sunshine Week Lesson On Press Freedom

Originally published in the Providence Journal

A student at The Met High School is the driving force behind a student press-freedom bill that’s coming before a General Assembly committee right in the heart of Sunshine Week.

“Educational institutions don’t make students stronger by preventing them from speaking their minds freely,” said Yanine Castedo, 16, of Central Falls. “They make students stronger by embracing the voices of young people and supporting their right to free speech.”

Castedo said she knows of no free-press concerns at The Met, in Providence, but she said there have been problems over the years in Rhode Island. For example, she noted that in 2004 a Cumberland principal asked high school students to remove a cartoon deemed critical of the superintendent, so students cut the cartoon out of 1,600 papers.

In preparing for her senior thesis, Castedo, a junior, worked with the Providence Student Union and the Student Press Law Center to craft a bill called the “Student Journalists’ Freedom of Expression Act.” Sponsored by Rep. Jeremiah T. O’Grady and Sen. Gayle L. Goldin, the legislation will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

If it passes, Rhode Island would join eight other states with student press-freedom laws, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, based in Washington, D.C. And if it passes, it will be because of Castedo, he said. “She is a dynamo. She is a one-woman campaign. You can’t ask for better than student power being voiced by a student.”

In its 1988 “Hazelwood” ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of a public high school in St. Louis, Mo., to censor student newspaper stories about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. The high court said that if a public school can present a reasonable educational justification for its censorship, that censorship will be allowed.

States such as Massachusetts reacted to the Hazelwood ruling by passing student press-freedom acts, and with North Dakota passing an “anti-Hazelwood” bill earlier this year, a second wave is gaining momentum, LoMonte said.

While the Rhode Island bill provides greater protections for student journalists and their advisers, it does not protect anything that’s “libelous or slanderous,” that “constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy,” or that “incites students as to create a clear and present danger.”

“It’s not the Wall Street Journal level of press freedom; they’re not going to publish the Pentagon Papers,” LoMonte said. But the bill would curb “image-based censorship” that’s less about protecting students than protecting “the PR image of the institution,” he said. For instance, students should be free to write about “how the bathroom stinks of smoke because no one is enforcing the smoking policy,” he said.

Grady, D-Lincoln, said, “With traditional newspapers cut to the bone, we will look to student journalists to tell us more about what’s going on in the schools.” Goldin, D-Providence, said, “It’s important that students are able to express their thoughts without concern of being quieted by the administration.”

During Sunshine Week, the bill offers a teachable moment regarding freedom of information. And Justice William J. Brennan Jr.’s sharp dissent in “Hazelwood” offers a succinct lesson on censorship.

“The case before us aptly illustrates how readily school officials (and courts) can camouflage viewpoint discrimination as the ‘mere’ protection of students from sensitive topics,” Brennan wrote. “Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees.”