Carolyn Heckle – a junior at Corning-Painted Post High School in Corning, New York – understands the importance of a free press and the power of a phone call. She and her classmates conducted a phone banking effort to advocate for student press freedom through the New York Student Journalist Free Speech Act.
The law aims to make New York the 16th state to pass New Voices legislation to protect and restore the rights of student journalists and their advisers. Once passed, they’ll be able to publish truthfully – free from the threat of administrative censorship and from retaliation. Heckle believes that freedom of speech is a fundamental right and is important to protect. More pointedly, the law will enable her and student journalists across the state to tell the most important stories and do great journalism.
“We would be able to write more controversial pieces. Like we would be able to tell the stories of different minorities in our school – people that don’t feel like they’re being represented. Also in our communities, not just in the school,” Heckle reflected. “We won’t have to worry about the school’s reputation being upheld if this bill gets passed, because it won’t matter, we’ll be able to tell their stories”
Without the Student Journalist Free Speech Act in place, student journalists are prone to self-censorship which is the practice of withholding a story out of fear of retaliation. These are often stories about malfeasance amongst administrators or stories that may make the school ‘look bad.’ According to the Student Press Law Center, most students don’t recognize that they’re censoring themselves.
Within a week of their phone bank, Heckle and her classmates heard from a couple of senators who decided to support the bill. She says picking up the phone and speaking with a stranger isn’t something many teenagers are accustomed to doing but it is an important life skill and in advocacy, it’s particularly effective.
“The biggest thing with emails is that you’re not guaranteed that they’re not going to spam folders. You’re not guaranteed that people are seeing it,” Heckle advised. “When we call people, we’re able to tell our story more than we can in writing. When you hear someone’s voice and say, ‘hi, I’m actually a student at this school and this affects me personally,’ then it’s harder for people to say, no, I don’t want to stand for free speech.”
The students spoke with legislative directors, aides and in some cases members themselves. Reactions to their calls were mixed – one person left her on hold for 20 minutes before hanging up – but she says most of the time, people were supportive once they realized what she and her classmates were fighting for.
“They were saying, oh, I’ll share this information with the Senator. I’ll share this with his legislative assistant. This sounds like something that he would support, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” Heckle said. “It was really cool to hear that people might not have heard of this before, but now they’re thinking about it.”
Heckle’s journey with New Voices began when her adviser Michael Simons and another classmate told her about the movement. She encourages other students to get involved and use their voices to stand up for their peers. When organizing a phone-banking effort like hers, she encourages students to be enthusiastic when they make calls and to stay organized. A little bit of pre-research is also helpful. Heckle credits her time as an editor of her school’s yearbook with helping make her a better advocate.
“When you’re on staff, you have to interview someone and then turn that into a story that is easily digestible for the majority of our student population. I got pretty good at identifying information that was important,” Heckle reflected. “When calling Senator’s offices, you don’t wanna just ramble on and on and have them get bored or have them say ‘why I’m still listening to you.’ You wanna be concise, this is what they need to know.”