Editor’s Note: This piece was initially published by JEA Scholastic Press Rights Committee on Feb. 24, 2022 (Student Press Freedom Day).
Today is Student Press Freedom Day, a national day of action when student journalists in the United States raise awareness of the challenges they face, celebrate their contributions to their schools and communities, and take actions to protect and restore their First Amendment freedoms.
As JEA’s scholastic press rights director, I speak with many people who experience challenges, from students being told they aren’t allowed to report on “anything controversial” to advisers facing serious repercussions because of a yearbook spread.
Along with the rest of the dedicated SPRC team, I do my best to provide support and guidance. Although we put people in touch with our friends at the Student Press Law Center for legal advice, I’ve found advisers often just want to talk with someone who understands the unique challenges of scholastic journalism — navigating school politics while remaining stalwart supporters of student voice.
We can’t always fix these issues; sometimes all we can do is listen and affirm: Yes, your students should be able to report on those topics. Yes, their voices are important. Yes, you are doing the right thing.
As Candace Bowen, MJE, noted in her post “Creating inquiring minds or censoring them?”, schools across the country are facing a surge in book-banning and other curricular restrictions. Even as I celebrated the December passage of the latest New Voices law in New Jersey, I watched the EdWeek map of states with bills seeking to ban “divisive topics” grow. I have serious concerns about the impact these bills, if passed, will have on student journalism.
So where should we look for hope?
I look to student journalists doing the hard work. I look to adults and students working to pass New Voices laws in their states. I look to all of you, my colleagues, who keep showing up when we are all so very tired. I also look to everyone who applied for the First Amendment Press Freedom Award this year.
For the past 22 years, a panel of judges representing JEA, NSPA and Quill & Scroll have come together to read two rounds of applications to determine which schools are honoring the First Amendment through their support of a free student media program. In the interest of full disclosure, while I oversee the process as SPRC director, I abstain from Round 2 judging since my own school applies.
The whole process takes months, but it’s been a true source of inspiration for me. And I’m not just talking about the 17 schools who earned the award this year — I was inspired by every student who wrote about the importance of student voices as watchdogs in their communities, every adviser who expressed their passion for teaching the First Amendment, and every supportive school leader who clearly gets it.
Here are a few excerpts from these administrators’ responses, all of which demonstrate their understanding of the importance of a free student press:
- “With the responsibilities of the First Amendment comes the responsibility to do things the right way. We practice the First Amendment from the very first day of the year, and the students practice journalism without anyone looking over their shoulder.”
- “Student media is the voice of the student body and must have the freedom to explore topics that impact students … The support of student journalism is embedded in the fabric of our community.”
- “I see our journalism programs as a great learning experience for students and part of that learning experience includes taking ownership of their work. As a result, the students learn 21st century skills … including collaboration, communication, ethical decision-making, critical and creative thinking, and resilience. Supporting journalism students’ freedoms enables them to do their best work.”
- “In the end, as principal, I trust the staff we’ve hired to work deeply with students around the issues of protected speech to provide students with the skills, dispositions, and perspectives that are ethical, flexible, passionate about issues and respectful of all voices. Our track record so far tells me we are accomplishing what we’ve set out to do — teach excellence in our publications classes and teach that all voices matter in our broader school activities.”
FAPFA winners were announced today at noon CT. Whether you are lucky enough to have leaders who support student journalism like this or are struggling with censorship and pressure from above, please know we at the Scholastic Press Rights Committee see you and value you. We are here to rejoice with you when school leaders have your back, and we are here to strategize with you when they don’t.
Today, on Student Press Freedom Day, let’s celebrate our amazing student journalists and all the people who support them in their crucial work.