WASHINGTON, D.C. — Four notable student journalists discussed the future of press freedom and challenges like censorship and backlash from peers on a panel at the National Archives on Jan. 29.
The event was part of Student Press Freedom Day, which launched in 2018 to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision. Hazelwood expanded school administrators’ ability to censor student journalists. The Student Press Law Center created the annual Student Press Freedom Day to raise awareness of the crucial role of student journalists in their communities and the challenges they face.
The panel was moderated by Emmy-winning journalist Joie Chen, who now is the director of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism program in Washington. The panelists were:
- Maya Goldman, the recent editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily, the only daily newspaper in Ann Arbor.
- Neha Madhira, former editor-in-chief of the Eagle Nation Online at Prosper High School in Texas, and a current staff writer at The Daily Texan at the University of Texas. Austin. She received national media attention over a censorship battle with her high school principal.
- Joe Severino, former news editor at West Virginia University’s Daily Athenaeum and current reporter at The Charleston Gazette-Mail. During a fall 2019 internship at SPLC, he covered student journalism and the law.
- Kristine Guillaume, the recent president of The Harvard Crimson, which received national attention for the backlash from students over its coverage of a public rally against ICE.
About 30 people attended the 90-minute event in person, with more tuning in online.
Chen began the panel discussion by asking about challenges student journalists face from administrators and peers at school.
Madhira’s high school publication, Eagle Nation Online battled censorship from school administrators in 2018. Her principal pushed back against a variety of news stories and editorials he considered “negative.” The publication was censored three times during an academic year and, at one point, the principal banned op-eds. Longtime journalism adviser Lori Oglesbee-Petter, who defended her students, was ousted. The story made national news, including coverage in The New York Times..
Madhira advised student journalists to set up meetings with their administration early in the school year, before any trouble might emerge, and explain the role of student journalists. She said to tell administrators the student news organization isn’t a PR tool and will cover stories that may not make the school look good. She added that pushback from her school administration only made her staff more dedicated to reporting the truth.
Severino said he was not shocked by the censorship occurring in schools, because administrators don’t want stories published that cast their schools in a negative light.
During his time as a reporter for SPLC, Severino covered multiple stories of intense administrative interference, including two years worth of “intimidation, harassment, threats” at a New Jersey college and a high school publication in Illinois that was censored for its coverage of a student with disabilities who had caused significant classroom disruptions, including giving a teacher a concussion.
Even in cases where student journalists aren’t directly censored by their administrators, they sometimes avoid a story altogether out of fear of retaliation or pushback.
“In a certain sense there was a little bit of self-censorship that went on when I was editor-in-chief because it can be really scary to put something out into the world that you know is going to get pushback, and I think sometimes it doesn’t always feel worth it,” Goldman said.
The role of independent journalism
Chen asked about a controversy in the Crimson faced in October 2019 when reporting about an Abolish ICE protest on campus. Staffers did not identify undocumented students in their reporting. However, reporters did call ICE after the rally ended for a statement. It is standard, ethical journalism practice to reach out to all parties involved in a story for comment.
Some Harvard students were upset with Crimson reporters, and more than 1,000 people signed a petition demanding the Crimson no longer contact ICE for comment and apologize for the “harm it has inflicted on the undocumented community.” The Crimson has not engaged with its critics but hasn’t changed its practices, which several professional journalism groups and news organizations praised, including the Society of Professional Journalists, Student Press Law Center, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post.
Guillaume said the blowback from protesters and others was an example of a “conflation between activism and journalism,” which stems from a misunderstanding of how the press functions independently in the pursuit of the truth.
I don’t think the journalism industry right now is doing a good job of educating people and empowering people to learn about journalism
“There was still a lot of rhetoric about how newspapers should work to protect students or should work to uplift the voices of students,” Guillaume said. “And that is true; we want to tell their stories, but in order to do that, we have to tell them in a way that journalism is meant to do, by presenting all sides to the story to the reader to make their own conclusions.”
Guillaume also talked about how social media can spread misinformation or biased, partial stories.
“[Seeing] the echo chambers … helped me to have more clarity on why it’s so important to get multiple perspectives on a story and why it’s important to make sure you’re engaging with all of the arguments, because that’s how you make your own conclusions,” Guillame said.
Panelists all agreed on the need for improved news media literacy.
“I don’t think the journalism industry right now is doing a good job of educating people and empowering people to learn about journalism,” Goldman said.
Severino agreed, saying many people don’t truly understand what the First Amendment protects, or the need for a free press.
The panelists also said that many times their readership does not understand the difference between news and opinion pieces, which can create contention and damage trust.
The future of press freedom
Chen asked the panelists about their visions of free speech for student journalists. Severino answered without hesitation: pass New Voices laws in all states.
New Voices is a student-driven nonpartisan movement to restore and protect student press rights at the state level. These laws counteract the impact of the Hazelwood decision, which gave school administrators broad authority to censor student media for virtually any reason.
There are currently 14 states that have passed these laws to protect student press freedom; the first being California in 1977 and the latest was Washington in 2018.
Severino said these bills are important because giving student journalists the same basic First Amendment protections afforded to professional journalists means they have to hold themselves to the same higher standard of professionalism..
He also pointed out the lack of journalism education in rural America and other communities. His own high school in West Virginia didn’t have a student newspaper.
“When we get into states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Appalachia states, high schools usually don’t have journalism programs,” Severino said. “I think if we make a considerate effort to start teaching kids journalism, and start teaching about the First Amendment and getting high levels of media literacy going at a young age, I think that’s the easiest place to start.”
Madhira said advisers are key components in the success of student journalists, and attributes much of her success in journalism to her high school adviser.
“Even at a college level, it’s important to recognize the roles of the higher ups in journalism that are teaching you … and I think that when we start having not just journalism teachers, but people who are teaching … media literacy, to children at such a young age, it can be the foundation for them.”
Why journalism matters
Chen asked each panelist for closing thoughts.
“Student voices are important and they are starting to be heard, so let’s keep raising them, let’s keep trying,” Madhira said.
…the voice of young people is vastly ignored in society; they’re the most drowned out voices
Mary Beth Tinker, the free speech activist most notably known as a plaintiff in the 1969 landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines which defined First Amendment rights for students, was present in the audience. During the question-and-answer session, Tinker asked the panelists about the future of diversity and inclusion in journalism.
In his closing remarks, Severino quoted Tinker, saying that it’s time people start asking young people about their opinions.
“Something that Mary Beth said is the voice of young people is vastly ignored in society; they’re the most drowned out voices,” Severino said. “So it’s important for us as student journalists to talk to other students and ask them what their opinion is.”
Goldman added that the most important thing student journalists can do is “continuing to work in our communities, putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard and doing the work that we do so well.”
Guillaume wrapped up the panel by encouraging student journalists to recruit more people to their newspaper staff, broaden their coverage, look for new angles in their stories, and educate “students, young kids, about press freedom and why it’s so critical for our democracy.”
SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318.
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