SPLC urges Tennessee to protect student media from investigation

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

The Student Press Law Center has submitted formal comments to the Tennessee Department of Education urging it to amend draft regulations implementing the state’s new ban on so-called “prohibited concepts” to ensure that student journalists will not be penalized under the new law. The SPLC has called upon Commissioner of Education Dr. Penny Schwinn to specifically protect student media from being all but silenced under the law.

One of a slew of efforts to restrict the teaching of certain topics including so-called “critical race theory,” Tennessee’s far-reaching law, which went into effect on June 1, casts a wide net and prohibits the mere inclusion of a wide range of concepts in instruction, regardless of the purpose of the lesson. This ban extends to “supplemental instructional materials” which could, under the draft regulations, be interpreted to include student media. 

The regulations, the SPLC wrote, “pose a serious threat to Tennessee’s student journalists, journalism educators and journalism education as a whole … Fundamentally, the state is wading into dangerous territory by positioning itself as the arbiter of ideas in environments where the free flow of information should be promoted and encouraged as young people learn how to become responsible and engaged civic-minded members of society.”

Under Tennessee’s new law, investigations of “prohibited concepts” are prompted by complaints from the school community, raising serious concerns that Tennessee student media will be heavily censored in order to avoid any such complaints. Violations of the new law can cost schools millions of dollars in withheld funds. 

The regulations make off-limits the mere mention of many topics discussed in both modern and historical media, prohibiting journalism teachers from using comparative media clips as teaching tools to demonstrate methods, qualities or mistakes in journalistic practice. They could prevent student newspapers from publishing the time-honored point/counterpoint opinion pieces. A simple yearbook timeline documenting important world events from the previous school year  could mean an investigation and, based on the subjective reasoning of investigators, the loss of millions of dollars of school funds. The SPLC letter highlighted a number of real and hypothetical censorship examples sanctioned under the draft regulations, and urged the Department to prevent such censorship from taking place.

The SPLC specifically requested that the regulations be amended to ensure that “no school is to be considered to have included or promoted a prohibited concept as a result of work appearing in student media. A teacher or student media adviser may not be considered responsible or accountable for student work appearing in student media.” The SPLC further proposed language ensuring that students remain in control of the content of student media, and that the Department clearly permit the instruction of journalism, journalism ethics, the law of the student press, and other critical scholastic journalism content. 

Adoption of regulations by the Department of Education cannot change the underlying law, which went into effect June 1. However, the Department of Education can make decisions in the enforcement of the law that mitigate the widespread chilling effect the law will have on student media and the teaching of journalism as a whole.

“As we raise this next generation of journalists to enter the world,” the SPLC wrote, “it will be a disservice to everyone to discourage those students from approaching and covering important topics. A weakened press will fundamentally endanger our democracy.”

The SPLC will continue monitoring events in Tennessee and will also be monitoring similar bills as they arise and may impact student journalists. Students and advisers affected by these regulations or other censorship in Tennessee should contact the SPLC’s legal hotline for assistance. 

Read SPLC’s Full Comments:

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has worked to support, promote and defend the First Amendment and freedom of expression rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, and the advisers who support them. Working at the intersection of law, journalism and education, SPLC runs the nation’s only free legal hotline for student journalists. SPLC is an independent, non-profit 501c(3) organization based in Washington, D.C.