“Censorship is the kind of thing you never forget:” A college journalist on the need for New Voices

Do you remember the first time you were told that you couldn’t report on something? How your breath stopped short in your chest? The way the light drained from your eyes and anger sparked in your stomach and you knew your cheeks were on fire? The way your eyes never left the floor? The way you couldn’t wrap your mind around the idea that you were being silenced, for no apparent reason and with no regard to the freedom you were supposed to have? I do. I was 17.

I’m 21 and a college journalist now, and I still feel pressure to write about things that other people deem appropriate rather than what I think is important or even relevant to my experience. But sometimes I remember— “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”—and I wonder why these rights do not seem to apply to me. Aren’t I American, too?

Censorship is the kind of thing you never forget and that you just can’t get over.

That is why I support New Voices, a student-powered grassroots movement to give young people the legally protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern. Because I think it’s about damn time that we trust student journalists to talk about issues concerning them.

New Voices Act state legislation would give student journalists this opportunity by reversing the effects of the 1988 Hazelwood Supreme Court decision that allowed administrators to easily justify censorship of legitimate speech in curricular settings and by restoring the Tinker standard of student expression in public high schools, colleges and universities. This standard protects student speech unless it is libelous, an invasion of privacy or creates a “clear and present danger” or a “material and substantial disruption” of the school.

Opponents claim that giving these rights to student journalists will give them the same protections awarded to professional journalists. This is simply untrue. The Tinker standard is far from being an “anything goes” standard—in fact, it is the standard that applies today to students’ T-shirts, hairstyles and other “non-curricular” forms of speech, to which schools have become accustomed over the last 46 years. Rolling back Hazelwood merely gives a student journalist the same level of First Amendment protection on the editorial page that she has on the T-shirt she wears to school.

Surprisingly, the partisan aggression that typically aligns itself with extending student freedoms has not been an issue thus far with New Voices legislation. Support for New Voices has spread across partisan lines in states like Michigan and Missouri and is continuing to do so nationally. Student freedoms of press and speech are finally being viewed as imperative rights that need protecting across the board, and I want to urge student journalists to join in the fight.

Not only would New Voices legislation provide us with the chance to showcase student concerns in a way that more accurately represents the student body and voice, but it would allow us to finally, as students, learn and practice authentic journalism.

We hear every day the complaints that student media gets it wrong and that the mainstream media is beginning to fail—that our generation is ruining journalism by making huge mistakes and failing to report up to the standard of previous generations.

But, I have to ask… what do they expect?

We are a generation of journalists being told that our viewpoints are too scandalous, that the issues that concern us are irrelevant and unimportant, and whose abilities are limited by those who don’t like what we have to say. I have never been in a college or high school newsroom full of students who want to report only on the highlights of the football game or the latest work produced by art students. But I have been in newsrooms where adults tell journalists with more serious ambitions to focus on reporting “good” news. I have been asked the ever popular question—“You go to school here. Why are you so ready to make us look bad?”

As a journalist, nothing infuriates me more. I have no interest in making the school ‘look bad’ or even in making it ‘look good.’ I have an interest in reporting the truth. If that means running a front page story about a concert on campus, fine. If that means running a front page story about rape, that’s what I will do. And administrators: don’t you think it makes you look worse when you have all of us lining up to say that we’re tired of hiding the school’s dirt underneath pages of fluff? Don’t you think you would have a better chance of ‘looking good’ if you were doing something about the goings-on, rather than pretending that things are hunky dory?

None of us are going into this profession because we care about the image of our university. We are not members of the public relations department. We are a group of independent thinkers with real concerns and with real talents that are begging to learn how to use those thoughts and talents in a way that can benefit others. Why are those charged with fostering our abilities trying so hard to hinder them?

I want to see the birth of a new generation of journalists who grow and learn to report without fear of administrative retribution or the restriction of their opinions. I want to see a new generation of journalists unafraid to tell the stories that need to be told, and I want to see them telling them right because they were taught to tell them right.

Under New Voices legislation students would finally have the chance that we deserve and that we have unfairly been denied for so long. And I think that’s worth supporting.