High school sophomore spearheads campaign for student press freedom legislation in Rhode Island

One Rhode Island student is taking a stand against administrative censorship in the state’s public high schools and universities, even if she has to lead the charge alone.

With the help of high school sophomore Yanine Castedo, Rhode Island state representatives have introduced the Student Journalists’ Freedom of Expression Act, which would protect student journalists’ right to free speech and of the press, regardless of whether the publication is paid for by the school or produced as part of a class.

In addition, the legislation would also prohibit retaliation against student media advisers for content in the student publication. The bill does not protect student expression that is libelous, slanderous, invades privacy, violates state or federal law or incites students to violate school district policies or break the law. The legislation, which is part of thenationwide ‘New Voices’ campaign, was referred to the Rhode Island House Committee on Judiciary on Feb. 24.

“New Voices is important to me because I believe strongly in strengthening student voices. When we talk about improving our education system, we need to ask the people who are involved in it every day — students,” Castedo said. “New Voices gives them the protection to share their concerns and feelings without fear of backlash from administration. Educational institutions don’t make students stronger by restricting the way we use our voices.”

Castedo launched the New Voices of Rhode Island campaign earlier this year following the success of similar efforts in states like North Dakota, which passed a New Voices law in April, and Missouri, which has a bill going through the legislature.

Castedo is a sophomore at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center and is the school’s delegate for the Providence Student Union, an organization that allows students to work together to develop leadership skills and to make improvements to their education system.

Based on how the legislation is currently written, the Freedom of Expression Act would only apply to student journalists in public colleges and universities — not high school journalists.

But Democratic Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady, who introduced the legislation along with four other state representatives, said the bill is intended to protect both high school and college student journalists. The current lack of protection for high school students is just a filing error, he said, and will be fixed before any action is taken on the bill.

Before being approached by Castedo, O’Grady said he was unaware that student expression was restricted under the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In the case, the Court ruled that unless there was a policy establishing the paper as a public forum, school administrators could censor student media if they found a reasonable educational justification.

O’Grady said the Freedom of Expression Act seems like a reasonable way to address the issue, assuming protections are added for high school journalists.

“I’m looking forward to being educated by the committee process,” O’Grady said.

Castedo said the bill is important to her because she believes that students are more successful when they are given the freedom to speak without fear. She said working on the campaign in the early stages has served as proof that the legislation is needed for educators and state officials to take student learning seriously.

“I feel like it’s kind of strange for me to be talking to grown adults when I’m so young. It makes me nervous and they don’t owe me anything,” Castedo said. “New Voices affects students like me, and why would they care? I don’t have the experience that they have.”

PSU Director Zack Mezera said Castedo has been the driving force behind the New Voices legislation. Still, he said it’s rare that legislation passes in its first year, adding that a two-year effort would allow the campaign to gain more support. Mezera said he is worried about potential pushback from college officials, because PSU does not have contacts with higher education institutions.

“I’m [also] concerned about opposition from school administrators [who] are worried about lawsuits,” Mezera said.

Still, Castedo says that giving up on the cause is not an option.

“If you’re really interested in journalism or have a love for journalism, this is a great thing. You’re fighting to have the right to learn. You don’t have to worry about getting every step right because this is about learning. For people to say this won’t give us a chance to learn, that’s silly,” Castedo said. “Students are learning just by going through this process of trying to get it passed. We have to keep going, even if we’re doing a lot of it alone.”

Castedo advises students who want to lead a similar movement in their state to students who want to lead a similar movement in their state to prepare for questions and situations in advance. Her secret is to always have a few talking points lined up for every question that she can think of in advance.

“Have some kind of elevator speech prepped so that you can talk to someone and explain the campaign quickly. Be able to tell them what it is, why you care about it and how it will affect them. If you come with those things, people will think of you as a leader and they’ll want to help you,” she said. “And if that still doesn’t work, definitely call me or email me. I am always open to talk and share stories because I love this campaign. I want to keep pushing this and continue it all over. Encouraging this kind of thing is so important and I want to help however I can.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, the parent organization of the New Voices USA movement, also encourages students to use the community of advocates supporting similar legislation across the country as a place to ask for advice and to gather reassurance.

“The great thing about the New Voices movement is that there are people at the Student Press Law Center and people like Steve Listopad at [Valley City State University in North Dakota] who are building communities of activists who all want to help and see this through,” he said. “I hope everyone feels comfortable reaching out and making those connections.”

This article originally appeared on www.splc.org.