Op-eds, panels, newsroom open houses, TikToks: How student journalists celebrated Student Press Freedom Day 2020

Student journalists around the country engaged with readers, called for grassroots movements to ensure their First Amendment rights, and took a stand against censorship for Student Press Freedom Day on Jan. 29.

Student Press Freedom Day was launched by the Student Press Law Center in 2018 to mark the 30th anniversary of the landmark 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which expanded school administrators’ ability to censor journalists. 

In 2019, SPLC kicked off the Year of the Student Journalist with Student Press Freedom Day. The “national day of action” was a catalyst in a year-long initiative to raise awareness of the important stories student journalists produce, the unique challenges they face and how journalism education is an effective tool for teaching civics. 

“The legacy of the 1988 Hazelwood decision is a shameful one,” said SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris. “Far too many student journalists have been censored by image-conscious school administrators, or intimidated to self-censor or not report on ‘controversial’ topics that matter to their peers and communities. It is important that we stand up nationally to say ‘No more!’” 

For Student Press Freedom Day 2020, SPLC partnered with the National Archives Foundation to hold a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. during which four accomplished student journalists spoke to Emmy-winning journalist Joie Chen about censorship, social media pressures from peers and the future of press freedom.

The theme for 2020 was “This is what student press freedom looks like.” (For fun, SPLC released a playlist called “This is what student press freedom sounds like.”) 

More than 30 student news organizations wrote editorials. About 20 high school and college news organizations held events in at least 10 states and Washington, D.C. SPLC provided small grants (up to $300) to some student groups to help them cover the costs of the events.

Participants around the country made Tik Toks, created informative videos, hosted events at their schools and wrote about why they chose to be journalists.

Student journalism as civics education

Students around the country used Student Press Freedom Day as a jumping off point to get other students involved in the political process.

Students at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky brought together local journalists, lawyers, legislators and student leaders from across the state for a panel discussion about press freedom. More than 50 students attended the event.

Currently, Kentucky doesn’t have a law protecting press freedom for students.

Ten duPont students decided hosting an event for Student Press Freedom Day could help build momentum for a New Voices campaign in Kentucky. 

New Voices is a student-driven nonpartisan effort to restore and protect student press rights at the state level. These laws counteract the impact of the Hazelwood decision, and restore the 1969 Tinker standard, which only allows school officials to censor school sponsored student speech if it is defamatory, an invasion of privacy, incites violence, or causes a “material and substantial disruption” to the school day. 

“We are trying to get the campaign to pass New Voices legislation rolling,” Norah Wulkopf, a junior and staff member at the school’s yearbook, said. “So we thought it was important to get community voices to come together and speak and hopefully get press coverage of why student press rights are … important.”

Eagle Nation Network, a student media outlet at Prosper High School in Texas, aired a video highlighting that 36 states, including Texas, don’t have legal protections for student journalists. 

The lack of these protections means students are subjected to prior review and are censored. Now-graduated students at Prosper High School made national news in 2018 for pushing back when they were censored repeatedly by their principal. Their adviser lost her job. 

The staff of The Wildcat Tribune, the student newspaper at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, California, organized school-wide presentations and contests to educate their fellow students about press freedom.

During their school’s free period, members of the Tribune gave a presentation about the legacy of the Hazelwood case, and how the decision leaves student journalists in many states unprotected from censorship.

Daniela Wise, a junior and social media editor of the Tribune, said the Tribune staff are able to exercise their press freedom because California is a New Voices state with laws to protect student journalists’ First Amendment rights, but they want to educate their peers about the lack of those protections in other parts of the country.

“[This event is] a way to show that we do care, and that without some of the rights that we have, we would not have been able to express our opinions, write as much as we do or have the luxury of writing without being censored,” Wise said.

Unique challenges students face

The Doane Owl at Doane University in Crete, Nebraska participated in Student Press Freedom Day in part because of a series of clashes they’ve had with administrators. 

The Owl’s interview requests are routed straight to the PR department, and reporters were told they cannot send out campus-wide surveys. 

Editor-in-Chief Caitlyn Nelson said The Owl hosted an open house to bring students into the newsroom, show them how they operate, and talk to them about these issues. They also wanted to bring attention to the school’s dwindling journalism department due to lack of faculty and funding for the program. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ranked Doane University as one of 2020’s top 10 worst colleges for free speech.

Student reporters at The Saint Rose Chronicle face similar issues. 

Employees of The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York have slowly limited student journalists’ access to sources and information since 2017. Now reporters are funneled through PR; the marketing department is requesting that reporters send questions in advance for certain interviews; and the head of PR sits in on group interviews.

The Chronicle published an article explaining these issues. Then, for Student Press Freedom Day, they hosted a panel in the campus library to talk to students and faculty about the state of reporting at the school. About 50 people attended, and The Chronicle‘s adviser said it was the loudest she had ever heard the library.

At Radford University in Virginia, the editor in chief of The Tartan joined the Student Press Freedom Day op-ed campaign to write about how the paper still doesn’t have answers about stolen newspapers on campus. He criticized the university for not releasing surveillance footage of the incident or revealing the name of the school employee who was caught stealing copies of the paper from at least four newsstands in 2019. 

Neha Madhira, one of SPLC’s Student Press Freedom Day panelists, was the editor in chief of Prosper High School’s Eagle Nation Online in 2018 when the publication was battling censorship from school administrators

Prosper’s principal censored Eagle Nation Online three times in one semester and temporarily banned op-eds. Eventually, ENO‘s longtime award-winning journalism adviser Lori Oglesbee-Petter, who defended her students, was ousted.

(From right to left) Emmy-winning journalist, Joie Chen (CNN and CBS News), and student journalists Neha Madhira (The Daily Texan), Joe Severino (formerly of The Daily Athenaeum), Maya Goldman ( formerly of The Michigan Daily), and Kristen Guillaume (formerly of The Harvard Crimson) discuss the censorship on Student Press Freedom Day. Photo by Alicia Thomas.

Madhira said during the panel the pushback from administration only made her staff more dedicated to reporting the truth. She’s now a college journalist at University of Texas at Austin.

The important work student journalists do

During SPLC’s panel, Maya Goldman, spoke about her time as editor in chief of Michigan Daily — the University of Michigan’s independent student paper serves as the only daily news outlet for more than 121,000 residents in the Ann Arbor area. 

As local media shrinks and newsrooms undergo major layoffs, it’s increasingly common that student journalists are the only source of news in an area. 

DuPaul University’s student paper, The DePaulia, posted an Instagram video about how student journalists create their 28-page weekly publication. Students said they learned more from creating the publication than from their journalism classes.

The Observer, the daily independent student newspaper that serves University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College and Holy Cross College, tweeted articles they were able to produce because of press freedom, including an editorial about lack of transparency at Notre Dame, and a news story about mental health resource accessibility on campus.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press posted a video about high school students in Kansas who investigated their new principal, found she had lied about her credentials and broke the story that eventually led to her resignation.

“The next generation of journalists will dedicate themselves to covering the stories that matter,” the caption says. “Their commitment will help shape the nation’s future. But today, there are real threats to press freedom, and journalists’ ability to keep the public informed.” 

SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at athomas@splc.org or by calling 202-974-6318.

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