SPLC and the New England First Amendment Coalition call on schools to protect speech, press rights

white logo saying SPLC and Student Press Law Center on a bright blue background

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 8, 2020

Contact: Hillary Davis, New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer

The Student Press Law Center and the New England First Amendment Coalition are calling on public school administrators across New England to protect the speech and press rights of students as they return to class this fall.

The two groups are partnering to offer students a variety of resources that can be used to protect themselves from infringements of their First Amendment rights. They include a legal hotline; access to attorneys in the New England states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont; and resources specifically for student journalists.

The unprecedented circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and new safety protocols in the region’s schools make it especially important that students at all levels remain free to express themselves and share information about their school experience, representatives from both groups said.

“Students across the country are already being censored and facing suspensions for merely sharing their in-school experiences with the community,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of NEFAC.
A Georgia student last month, for example, was suspended after posting a photo to Twitter that showed crowded hallways in her high school with few students wearing masks. The suspension was later reversed after it attracted national media attention.

Other likely threats to student speech and news publications include punishment for discussing topics that could be embarrassing to administrators or the reluctance of school officials to release safety information pursuant to state public record laws. There could also be efforts to defund student press organizations under the guise of necessary budget cuts.

Only three New England states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont — have laws explicitly protecting student journalists from censorship, said Hillary Davis, SPLC’s New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer.

“These types of situations are likely to crop up more and more as students return to schools,” Davis said. “Students need to know that we have their backs and we’re here to provide the help they need.”

Resources for Students

Student Press Legal Hotline
The first step for student journalists facing censorship or looking for answers to legal questions is to contact the SPLC. Attorneys at the SPLC will be available to answer questions or to work with NEFAC to find local counsel to help.

First Amendment Attorney Referrals
All other students facing threats to their freedom of speech should contact NEFAC Executive Director Justin Silverman at justin@nefac.org or use the button below. Students can get general guidance and be connected to individual First Amendment attorneys throughout the region.

Public Records Assistance
Students who need help obtaining public records from their schools — such as responding to denials based on unjustified FERPA and HIPAA exemptions — can contact NEFAC for guidance or use one of the following SPLC resources:
• Public Records Letter Generator
• Public Records Complaint Template
• FERPA Request Letter Generator

Protest Guides and Other Legal Resources
Student journalists who are covering protests can access an SPLC guide which provides tips on staying safe, learn from NEFAC about the First Amendment rights of both protesters and the reporters covering them, and get tips from SPLC attorneys about how to best communicate with law enforcement. Students can also get answers to a variety of legal and journalism questions via the “Ask SPLC” frequently asked questions.

Virtual Speakers and Civics Education
NEFAC and SPLC offer a variety of speakers to both students and educators on all grade levels. SPLC’s Virtual Speakers Bureau provides experts to address topics such as copyright law, libel law and freedom of information requests. NEFAC connects journalists, attorneys and historians to classrooms seeking lessons on civics and media literacy.