Teens for Press Freedom, New Voices New York, and the Student Press Law Center hosted a rally in support of New York’s Student Journalist Free Speech Act.
Teens for Press Freedom, New Voices New York, PEN America, Student Press Law Center, and approximately 40 high school students gathered in New York City to advocate for the passage of New York’s Student Journalist Free Speech Act on June 13, 2021. The rally provided another opportunity for lawmakers to understand why the law is needed.
The “Stand for Speech” rally highlighted the censorship challenges facing student journalists. Speakers included Townsend Harris High School student journalists Victoria Oei and Samantha Sestak along with Teens for Press Freedom co-founders Charlotte Hampton and Isabel Tribe. They were joined by Manhattan District Attorney candidate Tahanie Aboushi, SPLC board member and First Amendment attorney Ava Lubell, and Katina Paron with Hunter College, and author of “A NewsHound’s Guide to Student Journalism”.
“High school students are producing brave and important journalism, reporting on the impact of COVID-19 or issues of racial justice and Black Lives Matter. But we know that this brave reporting is often being censored by administrators who are undermining the students’ First Amendment rights because the content makes them uncomfortable or is controversial,” the co-founders of Teens For Press Freedom said. “This needs to stop. That’s why we’re holding the rally and why we need the Student Journalist Free Speech Act to be adopted in New York.”
In a school that demanded prior review, we most likely would not have been able to publish these powerful journalistic pieces.VICTORIA OEI AND SAMANTHA SESTAK
The rally began with Townsend Harris High School students Victoria Oei and Samantha Sestak describing their experience within a journalism program that operates with protection from censorship. Their newspaper’s charter promises, “The administration will refrain from demanding prior review of any article, and will place no subjects off-limits to student reporters.” All students deserve the same from their schools.”
Their founding principal, Dr. Malcolm Largmann saw the value of codifying press freedom shortly before he retired in 2001. Victoria and Samantha were surprised to learn that most students don’t have the same freedom to tell all of the stories that are important to their community. It motivated them to speak up.
“We know we have forced many difficult conversations through our reporting, Victoria Oui said at the rally. “We are surrounded by education officials and politicians who in the past few years in particular have called on young people to stand up, speak up, and reject injustices … while society tells us to find the courage to challenge injustice, it also allows educational institutions to censor students.”
Using their freedom, Oui and Sestak along with their classmates highlighted gaps in their administration’s COVID-19 school reopening plan. For example, they surveyed the bathrooms at their high school and found a disturbing lack of soap and even soap dispensers. How are students supposed to stay safe and follow the established protocols without necessary equipment? This led to changes that might have saved lives.
The standard that is in place right now is confusing and subjective.Katina Paron
The standard established in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) gives school administrators the ability to censor students ‘for any reasonable pedagogical purpose’. It provides entirely too much control over their student’s speech and activities by being vague and subjective. Administrators have used the ambiguity to censor political commentary counter to their beliefs and quell conversations regarding controversial yet important events and ideas. The Student Press Law Center’s free legal hotline supported hundreds of student journalists over the last year facing challenges to their work regarding racial justice protests, COVID-19 response, and sexual misconduct by school staff.
Katina Paron wrote the book “A Newshound’s Guide to Student Journalism” drawing upon her experience working with student journalists over the past 25 years. At the rally, she described the disparity of press freedom in New York schools and how it diminishes the quality of education their students receive. New York’s Student Journalist Free Speech Act would help clarify what can be published and normalize standards state-wide.
“Without the Student Journalist Free Speech Act, teen reporters are gaslighted into believing that administrative dysfunction is not systematic,” Paron said. “They are told that the concern their peers feel over your education is invalid. Without the Student Journalist Free Speech Act, all students will be disempowered in their education and in their communities because of lack of transparency and information.”
New Voices advocates are working in their states to reverse the effects of the Supreme Court’s Hazlewood decision. Learn more and get involved. (add links)
These are the foundations of our country, of our democracy.Tahanie Aboushi
Just in time for a summer rain shower, candidate for Manhattan District Attorney Tahanie Aboushi joined the rally to encourage advocates and express her support for New York’s Student Journalist Free Speech Act. In her speech, she reinforced her commitment to pushing back when rights are infringed. She also reminded attendees that if it weren’t for someone recording a video, many instances of misconduct from law enforcement would go unpunished.
“If it’s not for our press which has documented abuses and also our movement, we would not have been able to collect history and build for progress — for a better future for our country.”
I’m a media lawyer. I work for journalists. I work for you.Ava Lubell
Ava Lubell is a media lawyer and a member of the Student Press Law Center’s board. Standing up for journalists is her job. As an advocate for press freedom, she spoke to the students about their rights and called on them to write letters to state lawmakers asking them to support the Act. Lubell previously worked in the Governor’s office in New York and knows how politicians can be moved by letters from their constituents, particularly from students. Her call to action emphasized that change may not come immediately but their perseverance and presence at the rally would make a difference.
“So when I said I was relieved to be among warriors for a free press, I mean it. When we’re talking about making change, about codifying student speech rights, about codifying any rights, we’re not talking about a short-term commitment,” Lubbell relayed. “Our fight, the fight for free speech, the fight for student free speech requires endurance. It means showing up to rallies, making calls, writing letters, advocating to your community, getting the word out, building momentum, and applying pressure.”
Those letters will reinforce the advocacy taking place by Teens for New York, SPLC and New Voices New York. Advocates are encouraged by the momentum being built for the passage of New York’s Student Journalist Free Speech Act.