What would you report on if you could report on anything?

By Hillary Aerts DeVoss

Let me preface this entry by saying this much:

My students have never been punished for anything they’ve produced, nor have they been given a list of topics that they can’t cover. That’s what made this exercise so interesting.

Hillary Aerts DeVoss

When I posted the results on Facebook, which I hadn’t originally intended to do, people called it a “project” and an “assignment.” It was neither of those things. I simply typed up a prompt – which popped into my head about 10 minutes before class started – and gave it to my newspaper students at the beginning class. Here’s the prompt, along with a healthy variety of answers:

It was intended to be a starting point for conversation, as well as a means to confirm a suspicion I’ve had all along: that censorship and FEAR of censorship can often yield the same results.

And this is the curse of living in a Hazelwood state. The censorship can be implicit, even among the most fearless and intelligent of students — like mine.

If you’re among the 40 of us, you get it: you teach students that they have First Amendment rights, but then you add the gray space that comes after it, a.k.a. “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” It is in your charge to help them navigate that space, but if you’re in a school/district that exercises prior review, you’re likely receiving “help” from a co-pilot that either doesn’t know how to navigate that gray space, or their compass is not set to “make sure students learn something.”

As if the school climate isn’t intimidating enough.

This is why New Voices campaigns are so important.

The exercise I conducted with my students was, among other things, a way to support our New Voices effort in Nebraska and I envisioned using it in a number of ways. Here are some you can adopt for yourself:

Prove to your students that their voices are valuable and worth protecting.

If your students, like mine, have never been overtly punished for what they’ve written but STILL fear the wrath of administration, maybe it’s time to call that to their attention. They are victims of the Hazelwood Effect. Knowing that there are no laws in place to keep you well protected from censorship, if and when it arises, can disable your ability to practice fearless journalism. That runs counter to what we want to teach.

And if I had a dollar for every time I told my students “Don’t self-censor” and “You’re not going to get in trouble,” I could make a sizeable donation to the SPLC.

Take a look at their answers. Emphasize how important it is that their stories are told. Chances are, they already know, but sometimes they need an adult to tell them, “hey, I’m on your side.” But then tell them about New Voices efforts, direct them to this website and encourage them to get involved. We support them, but they need to be the faces of the movement.

Spark a conversation

After my students turned in the worksheet, I told them why I wanted them to do it. As we headed into winter break and were mere weeks from the opening of our next legislative session, I needed to know that New Voices legislation was important to them and for them, so I wasn’t just putting forth effort simply because I’m a media law geek. But they proved to me that it wasn’t just important; it was imperative.

Throughout the course of the next hour, we had a discussion that, to me, felt a lot like advising a publication: from the background, with gentle guidance when needed. I took three pages of notes during the process. Each entry could be a blog post unto itself, but here were some key points they made:

  • They are underestimated by adults, most of whom don’t make the effort to engage in their lives.
  • Practicing journalism with Tinker-level First Amendment protection would give them the real-world experience they lack in other classes.
  • They avoid publishing work that could be perceived as controversial, because they don’t want to be the ones to hold back the newspaper’s production.

The list continues, of course, and only verifies what I already knew: that these kids deserve our trust, respect and advocacy.

So do yours.

Find strength in numbers.

A figure to have in your back pocket: 466-17.

In the past two years, New Voices bills have passed in North Dakota, Maryland and Illinois by a combined vote of 466-17.

That is compelling evidence that legislators see free speech as something worth defending.

Similarly, we can use our students’ stories to create compelling evidence.

What if we all had our students tell us what they’d write about if they weren’t worried about censorship? What if we counted the stories? What if we shared with each other? What if Washington collected 10,000 stories that wouldn’t be told because students’ rights aren’t protected the way they should be? Would your opposition argue against it? If they try, please record it and send it to me. I could use a laugh.

We advisers know it’s obvious that students need strong First Amendment protection, but not everyone thinks that way. It’s up to us to find solutions, be champions and employ classroom exercises – if you have some good ones, please share – to rid ourselves of the Hazelwood Effect that is pervasive in the 40 states who still have work to do. Let’s see what you come up with.