Opinion: Stop holding their hands

Practicing as a free press isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It taught me to be too responsible and too aware of how my actions affect others. It allowed me to cover stories on topics that the public needs to know more about and made me too concerned about my civic duties. It really forced me to step up to the plate and challenged me to make ethical and legal decisions.

And who needs that in high school?

Why should we promote a program that places the responsibility for work on the students’ shoulders and forces them to understand the impact of their decisions? What’s so important about letting students learn for themselves? How can we even contemplate allowing students to practice their First Amendment rights when their chance to be a “real adult” is just a few years away?

Hopefully, you noted the facetious tone of the above paragraphs. Schools are intended to prepare students to be active, educated citizens in society. Therefore, they should be at the forefront of teaching their students how to be responsible journalists and allowing their news organizations to operate with freedom of the press.

However, this is often not the case, unfortunately. There are schools where the principal is more concerned about the image of the school than the lessons students learn by practicing journalism without prior review. There are schools where administrators don’t believe their advisers are capable of teaching their students good journalism ethics and how to practice them. There are schools where advisers are afraid of losing their jobs if they fight censorship of their publications.

These schools are doing their students a disservice by stunting their educational growth. Schools that practice as free presses consistently produce higher quality journalism. This shows at the awards ceremonies of journalism conferences. Schools that operate as free presses bring home more awards (talk about making a school look good) because they are able to function without administrative oversight and pursue the stories they believe matter to their audience — fellow students. In fact, the Journalism Education Association/National Scholastic Press Association awards the First Amendment Press Freedom Award to schools that support and honor the First Amendment through their student media because this is such an important aspect of learning to be a journalist.

If you still can’t wrap your head around allowing students to practice journalism free from prior review and censorship, think about sports teams. When a kid joins a soccer team, do you stand next to them every step of the way and kick the ball for them? Of course not. You teach the kid the foundational rules and techniques, then let them make mistakes and learn from them. The same must go for student journalists. Once the adviser teaches them the proper laws, ethics and techniques, the students must be able to produce content without an administrator watching over them, ready to stop any mistakes from being made. How can they be expected to learn any other way?

Sophie Gordon is a former Active Voice fellow of the inaugural class. She is a rising senior at Ball State University in Indiana and plans to pursue media law. Read more of her work here.