This is a guest blog from Candace Bowen and the JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee.
Having a principal censor a student media article is bad, but there’s something worse.
It may start with an administrator’s polite suggestions to reporters not to “make the school look bad.” It may involve only slightly veiled threats about not being about to write an editor’s college recommendation letters.
Or it may just be the atmosphere in the school, the pressure a reporter feels when an investigative article comes out.
The principal no longer has to censor – the students are doing that already.
But the next step is often self-censorship when student journalists begin to doubt their news sense, question if it’s worth it to try to make a difference. The staff begins to fill their pages and broadcasts with what one student said in a workshop: “We feel like all we can write about is marshmallow fluff.”
At that point, the principal no longer has to censor – the students are doing that already. And often, according to the Student Press Law Center, they don’t even realize what they are doing.
That’s why the theme of this year’s Student Press Freedom Day, Feb. 24, is so perfect. Over the last two years, we frequently start talking on a Zoom call or the like, not remembering our mic is off and another person has to gently remind us. Some students have the same reaction after facing censorship and criticism – they forget they have a voice.
They forget they can speak up and make a difference. They automatically self-censor.
We need to be sure they know they can and should, as the Student Press Freedom Day motto declares: “Unmute Yourself!”
One step to help them do that is to ensure they know what it is happening, when those veiled threats and bad atmosphere have led them to instinctively pull back. To help get them on the right path, the SPLC has posted a short quiz for students to take to see if they are “muting” themselves already without knowing it.
The SPLC has also posted a special website for Student Press Freedom Day, including a Toolkit and talking points for advisers, ways to get involved, issues to consider and, of course, the quiz.
Marshmallow fluff never helped anyone, but articles about unsanitary bathrooms, book banning, overcrowded classrooms have made a difference. Turning the mic back on can bring about change.