Student journalists unify, call for new and stronger press freedoms

The Torch, Bergen Community College, Paramus, N.J Photo courtesy of Edriel Fimbres, photo editor

On a day of coordinated national action, student journalists and their allies published editorials, held events and flooded social media to defend student press freedoms that have increasingly come under attack.

The Student Press Law Center dubbed Jan. 30 Student Press Freedom day — a day when student journalists were encouraged to speak out about their press freedoms.

“It was conceptualized as a moment where student journalists can stand up and talk about what their experiences are,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the SPLC. “It’s a moment when we can really talk about why journalism education is important.”

Jan. 30 also marks the launch of the “Year of the Student Journalist.” SPLC has partnered with the Freedom Forum institute and the Newseum to promote events and raise awareness of First Amendment issues facing student journalism throughout 2019.

Student newspapers publish flurry of coordinated editorials

The SPLC and online publisher Issuu also announced the creation of the “We Are Not The Enemy Impact Fund,” a resource that will provide small grants to student journalists and media advisers who will use the money to investigate, amplify or address challenges to student journalism, according to a news release.

The Newseum in Washington D.C., displayed student newspaper front pages in front of the museum on Pennsylvania Avenue. The museum has a long tradition of displaying the front pages from commercial newspapers from every state and a sampling from around the world. The front pages of student newspapers will continue to be displayed at the throughout 2019. Student news organizations can submit their front pages here.

As of the evening of Jan. 30, more than 40 student news organizations had published editorials about Student Press Freedom Day. See the student editorials here.

National nonpartisan grassroots campaigns work to restore press freedoms

In 1977, California passed a student free expression law, and during the 2015-16 academic year, grassroots nonpartisan coalitions powered by students and other volunteers started a renewed push for “New Voices” legislation. These state laws protect the First Amendment press rights of student journalists and prevent retaliation against their advisers and teachers, with bills expected to be introduced in about 10 states this year.

These laws effectively counteract and clarify the limits of the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, which greatly expanded the ability of public school administrators to control the content of student media. Students across the country are demanding reform at the state level.

Mike Heistand, SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel, who has three decades of working with student reporters, said the core issues facing student journalists have stayed largely the same. However, the media climate that journalists are operating in has become increasingly hostile, Heistand said.

Student Press Freedom day and the Year of Student Journalists is an opportunity to have a conversation about the greater issues facing the industry, he said.

“Journalists have been under attack in a way we have never been under attack before. We need to help young journalists understand that this is not normal, that their work is valuable,” Heistand said.

Students speak up for their rights

Olivia Wieseler, the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Tack at Buena Vista University in Iowa said that while the BVU administration has been generally respectful of the paper’s First Amendment rights, the school’s public relations department did restrict access to school leaders when the paper reported on a sensitive story.

Last year, students at BVU started to protest against police brutality and racism by kneeling during the national anthem, joining a protest movement started by former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Tack wrote dozens of stories about the protests, but were hard-pressed to get administrators on-the-record about the sensitive topic.

“We had a hard time getting a real quote or anything from the president,” Wieseler said. “I was just watching my peers struggle with how to represent this situation in an objective way.”

Wieseler and the paper’s co-editor, Allyssa Ertz, published an editorial Wednesday highlighting the paper’s protest coverage and pointing out a student newspaper’s watchdog role for the campus.

The Wilson Times of Wilson, North Carolina — one of two remaining family-owned papers in the state  — published an editorial on Tuesday urging lawmakers to pass a New Voices bill in the state.

Corey Friedman, the editor of The Wilson Times, wrote the editorial and said it will likely appear in about a dozen other North Carolina outlets because a string of local commercial newspapers in the state are carrying editorials in support of Student Press Freedom Day. While a student, Friedman wrote for his high school newspaper.

The editorial highlighted several incidents of school censorship in the state. In Spring 2017, school officials at the Richmond (N.C.) Early College High School halted production of the school yearbook because of several “inappropriate” senior quotes, including a famous refrain from President Donald Trump that read “Build that wall.”

“Papers in the UK [United Kingdom] picked this up,” Friedman said. “So that crossed the pond, that’s how big a deal that was.”   

Friedman said he’s proud to support New Voices legislation.

“It’s vital that the professional press stands up for the student press,” Friedman said.

Student Press Freedom day has spread as far as Belgrade, Serbia, where University of Belgrade student journalist Milica Cvetkovic has been writing for newspapers since high school. Cvetkovic covered Serbia’s 2017 anti-government protests for Al Jazeera.

“A lot of news agencies can’t really write about government and especially about current political affairs. A lot of newspapers were closed just because journalists wanted to report on relatively bad government policies,” Cvetkovic said via email.

Cvetkovic published a piece on Serbian media freedom on Wednesday. Reporters Without Borders ranked Serbia 76th out of 180 countries in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index. The United States ranked 45th In 2013, the U.S. ranked 32nd.

Harris said that SPLC has been dealing with an increasing workload defending student journalists in recent years. As the news industry hemorrhages jobs, students are filling some of the reporting gaps left behind by their professional colleagues. A 2014 Pew Center study found that 14 percent of all statehouse reporters were students.

“One of our great goals is to work ourselves out of a job, because there are no more problems,” Harris said. “But, today, we see this as a growth industry.”

More about Student Press Freedom Day

SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at cdawson@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co

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