What is all this talk about “Prohibited Concepts” and how does it affect student journalists?

Paper cut outs of question marks strewn around a desk next to a hand holing a pen

All around the country, an alarming trend has emerged: state governments are adopting school curriculum restrictions – some of which may impact student journalists. Called “anti-CRT”, “divisive concepts” or “don’t say gay” laws, these laws significantly – and often ambiguously – restrict what can and cannot be discussed in school materials. For student journalists, this can mean the significant censorship of student-created work in school-sponsored media, or the restriction of student journalist’s sources. In many states, this legislation may have the unintended consequence of restricting content that student journalists produce and publish or which journalism educators provide.  

It is a confusing time for free speech. To protect student voices and the integrity of student press freedom, student journalists should be able to make their own, independent editorial decisions regarding content, without school officials (government employees) dictating topics which are permissible or not.

Here are five take-aways for the student journalists fighting the good fight:

  1. Know how these new laws affect you. Many of them will impact student journalists, even if that was not their express legal intent. There is great misunderstanding about what these laws actually say, and we are seeing a significant gap between their content and how state officials and school administrators interpret and apply them. SPLC is here to help with this disconnect: if someone tells you that you cannot publish something because of one of these laws, contact the SPLC free legal hotline immediately;
  2. Know what censorship looks like. Censorship can take many forms, but in general it is any action that is meant to stop, dissuade, or discourage you from producing or distributing student media. Sometimes it is an overt order (“you may not publish this”), but sometimes there are more subtle forms of censorship. This can include, but is not limited to: 
    • Strong suggestions that a story be withheld or changed; 
    • Implications that a student’s piece is against the law or policy without showing you the text of the law or policy;
    • “Reviewing” a student piece until the publication deadline has passed; 
    • Threats to change your grades unless some aspect of a piece is changed; 
    • Outright or suggested cuts to your student media program’s funding following a controversial publication; 
    • Reassignment of your adviser; and
    • The disappearance or destruction of student media once you have distributed it.

      If you believe you have experienced or are at risk of censorship, contact the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline immediately at splc.org/legalrequest/.
  1. Be aware of self-censorship and the “chilling effect” that these laws represent. Both student journalists and their advisers can be subject to self-censorship.  If you feel you are changing your own work in light of these laws or a fear that your work won’t be “acceptable,” contact SPLC and we will help you wade through the state laws and school district policies;
  2. Look for changes. The landscape of these laws changes every day as they are being challenged in and out of court. We believe many of these laws to be unconstitutional, according to how we currently understand, live, and practice the First Amendment. Let us know what is happening in your community. SPLC is in the process of developing further resources to respond to the current legislative environment.
  3. SPLC continues to prioritize empowering student journalists’ right to free expression in the face of these new laws and those to come. Our free legal hotline is always available if you receive pushback or have any questions. As we say, “Write the story, we’ve got your back.”