“We are giving youth the power to speak:” A high school senior calls for New Voices of Texas

Call it the journalistic equivalent of plastic surgery: Since the U.S. Supreme Court limited high school students’ free expression rights in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988, administrators have been requiring students to nip and tuck their stories to be more image-friendly and to toss more controversial articles on the back burner.

Fortunately, these cosmetic touch-ups seem to only last as long as students remain unaware of their rights — and knowledgeable students across the nation have mobilized in the last year to fight back against administrative censorship by working with their state representatives to pass New Voices legislation. Typically, the New Voices bills seek to guarantee student journalists at public universities and high schools the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the publication receives financial assistance from the school. The bills vary slightly state by state.

Naba Siddiq, the senior editor-in-chief of the Seven Lakes High School student newspaper in Katy, Texas, was one of the first students in 2016 to lead the charge in the New Voices of Texas movement. She has since taken on a student ambassador role in the campaign, which she calls “absolutely necessary for student journalists.”

In 2016, The Student Press Law Center interviewed Siddiq via email about the Texas campaign and the issue of administrative censorship. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

SPLC: What drew you to New Voices and made you become more interested in the campaign?

Siddiq: With the biggest newspaper staff we have had in awhile, a lot of students had many things they wanted to write about. When the stories were submitted to the associate principal to review, he denied four of the stories written, which we understood to be innocent. After questioning why he was not letting us publish, he just gave us the Hazelwood [standard as a reason]. After many meetings and debates with all the principals, their “reasoning” still was not valid or fair. We contacted [the] Student Press Law Center for help over this situation, and that’s when I personally started to do more research on Hazelwood and New Voices and became aware of the movement and realized how many other students have struggled with this same issue in their school. I became passionate about this and decided to reach out to New Voices of Texas.

SPLC: Why do you think New Voices is so important?

Siddiq: I feel like I can’t say enough why this is so important. Many people don’t know or realize what a big problem and struggle this really is. Even I didn’t realize until I personally went through it. No matter what way the law tries to justify it, students do NOT have freedom of speech/press in their schools. As students, we should be able to write about real topics and issues. We should be able to discuss actual pressing matters that the rest of the student body and the community would be interested in.

How is a student supposed to learn true journalism when he’s being forced to write about cheese vs. pepperoni? How is a student supposed to know how to write real articles when he goes off to college when he wasn’t given the chance to truly learn before? Journalism careers aside… How are students supposed to learn how to communicate real issues to the world? Kids need the opportunity to learn as early as they can before it’s too late. Speech and expression cannot be limited because when limited, the potential impact it could have on hundreds of people is being taken away.

SPLC: What advice would you give other students who are looking for opportunities to get involved with New Voices campaigns in Texas or other states?

Siddiq: I would say to start off by doing a lot of research. Research the history behind everything, research situations other people have had because of Hazelwood in their state and if it was ever resolved. I would also tell them not to be afraid to reach out to others for help and not to be afraid to fight back. When my newspaper staff was going through being denied to write certain things by the principals, a lot of the other students started to worry and said we should just give up on trying to fight about it with them. Fear is the number one thing that holds students or teachers back from fighting for something bigger. I believe, however, that if you don’t let the fear control you and work hard towards your goal, it can be accomplished. I believe every person has the power to make a difference, just as I hope to make a difference in Texas.

SPLC: What would it mean for you if New Voices legislation were to pass in Texas?

Siddiq: If New Voices legislation were to pass in Texas, I would think of all the millions of kids who would now have a freedom that they didn’t even realize was taken from them. As dramatic as it sounds, we are giving youth the power to speak. And just knowing that I had anything to do with that would mean the world to me because I know how it felt for my speech to be restricted and I don’t want any other student to go through that. To not be able to write something you really believe in just because a superior did not agree or think it right — it is such a discouraging feeling. New Voices would be reinstating that courage and power to all the students who deserve it.

SPLC: How can other people get involved with the Texas campaign?
Siddiq: What is difficult about getting New Voices passed is that not a lot of people know that there even is a problem. So what the campaigns need right now is attention and recognition. The Texas campaign still needs to build its foundation and have attention brought to it. If students were to speak out about their personal experiences and share their stories across social media, it could really turn into a powerful thing. Social media is what currently brings the world together and once something goes viral, it could really jump start the campaign — not just in Texas but in any state. So I would really tell people to share, share, share! Share your experiences and spread the word. Not just to the journalism world, but to anyone who knows how important it is to have a voice.