Note from the director: We are overjoyed to welcome Roxann Elliott to the SPLC family for a year-long fellowship as our “content creator in chief,” a position made possible by a grant from a longtime SPLC benefactor, the McCormick Foundation. From among many standout applicants, Roxann distinguished herself by a demonstrated passion for advancing young people’s First Amendment rights, which informs every frame of her masterful documentary film, “Taking the Lede.” She’s the storyteller, so we’ll let her tell you the rest (and you can reach her with news tips by email).
Two years ago, I didn’t know the Student Press Law Center existed. I didn’t know there was a need.
Growing up in a small, rural town in Montana (perhaps the most redundant statement ever made), my high school didn’t have a newspaper. The yearbook highlighted the goings-on of our scant 200-some-odd students without incident. Mostly. One year, they misspelled my name three times in three different ways.
I grew up, moved away, and moved on. I attended the University of Alaska Anchorage for aviation before switching majors and graduating with my bachelor’s in criminal justice. Because reasons.
I worked in a law office for seven years before deciding law wasn’t the career for me and taking the leap to pursue what I wanted all along. I moved to Colorado and entered the journalism Master’s program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
I could go on about how that program changed my life, but the salient point for this blog is how it introduced me to the SPLC. During my second semester, I worked on a documentary, Taking the Lede, which highlighted the extraordinary work done by student journalists under Colorado’s Student Free Expression Law.
I learned about Tinker. I learned about Hazelwood. I spent the semester interviewing students who broke news about curriculum changes in their school, investigated abuse of military recruitment practices, and fought administrative and community to pressure to change, censor, or remove their reporting.
I also had the privilege to travel to D.C. to interview Frank and Adam and hear countless tales of student censorship across the country. I got a taste for the scope of the problem and the patterns of control and restriction employed by administrators and school boards.
I bristled at the blatant abuse of authority calculated to turn student news outlets into school district PR firms.
When the semester ended, I spent my summer and fall helping promote the documentary at high school journalism conferences and university events. When CU celebrated the start of their new College of Media, Commutation and Information, in which the J-school now falls, I stewed in the irony of holding the kickoff party in the Byron R. White Club box at Folsom Field.
He may have been an athletic hero at CU, but he also authored the majority opinion in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. A decision Colorado saw fit to override with their own legislation.
At my graduation, I painted #CUREHAZELWOOD on my cap.
Working on that documentary, I understood that free speech and freedom of the press is more than a lofty ideal. I saw what tangible, impactful change good reporting can bring. I saw how crucial it is to train young journalists well and provide them the freedom and responsibility to report fully on issues that impact their schools and communities.
In a climate where trust in the news media is at a historic low and “newspaper reporter” ranks as the worst job in the country, quality journalism education is critical. We can’t expect to produce great journalists, and enjoy the caliber of news coverage we want, without allowing journalism students to make mistakes and handle the consequences like young professionals.
Journalism plays a critical role in society, and student journalism provides an invaluable education in civic life and engagement. I applied to the SPLC because, cynic though I may sometimes be, I want to make a lasting difference. I recognize how a free and effective press can help overcome our individual apathy and collective inertia to make real changes.
That starts with quality, hands-on journalism education and real experience.
Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott is a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder’s journalism Master’s program. You can reach her by email or at (202) 833-4614.