Teenage journalism prodigy rallies her peers to stand up to censorship

An auditorium full of people sitting in black chairs seen from behind. At the front is a woman speaking at a podium
Hilde Lysiak delivers her keynote speech to a crowded room of student journalists.

In a keynote speech before the Spring 2022 National High School Journalism Convention, veteran journalist Hilde Lysiak criticized the censorship of journalists worldwide and urged student journalists to resist that censorship in their lives and careers. And she knows what she’s talking about. Despite her years of experience and famed career, Lysiak is also a 15 year old high school student. 

Student journalists like Lysiak play an important role bringing truth to light in many communities across the country where the student news outlet is the main source of news. Throughout the convention, SPLC heard from student journalists across the country about times they’ve been censored from telling stories about everything from sexual assaults on campus, gender queer students and their chosen pronouns and names, and corruption in their school administration. In some cases, the students were able to fight back and tell their truth. But not always. 

Lysiak first rose to fame as a nine year old when she founded the Orange Street News, a local newspaper in Selinsgrove Pennsylvania, that now serves Patagonia, Arizona. She would go to small businesses and stop people on the street to ask questions in the hopes of catching a story. Her tactic paid off and led Lysiak to her first big story after she overheard police officers discussing a gruesome murder that took place right on her street. She rushed over to the scene, asked questions, and left her business card with police and neighbors. She quickly published the story in her newspaper, hours before any major news outlet. 

At first she received backlash for her work from people suggesting she should be playing with dolls instead of pursuing her passion for journalism. 

My colleague Hillary Davis (SPLC’s Advocacy and Organizing Director) pointed out that “Young journalists — student or independent — are regularly told that they are too immature to delve into important issues. Yet at the same time – sometimes in the same breath – adults will lament that young journalists only want to write about gossip and frivolity, or that they fail to understand and grapple with important issues.”

Lysiak responded to her critics with a video that went viral, was featured on multiple news outlets, and landed her interviews on programs like “Good Morning America.” Her career blossomed from there. She continued to run Orange Street News, and has become an author and subject of a television series on Apple TV. She is currently the youngest member of the Society of Professional Journalists. 

Later in her career, after moving to Arizona, Lysiak was threatened with arrest by a border patrol officer while writing a story on the proposed border wall. The officer falsely claimed Lysiak could be arrested for recording the officer. Thankfully, Lysiak knew her rights and stood up against the officer. The officer later apologized publicly to Lysiak after being disciplined for the threat. 

The Student Press Law Center hears stories like this too often. Student journalists are told they can’t record, can’t take photos, can’t be in a public space, or can’t run a story, even if they are well within their rights. But just like Lysiak, you don’t have to accept it. You can learn more about access issues with these guides or contact the SPLC Legal Hotline for help.

In her speech, Lysiak stressed the important work journalists do in questioning commonly held beliefs, and holding those in power accountable. She started off by reading some jarring quotes regarding race and sex that were once commonly held beliefs like “teaching black kids to read is dangerous,” or “women in the workplace destroys the family structure.” Many in the audience raised eyebrows as Lysiak read these once widely accepted ideas. She delivered her point with gravitas; that journalists must question what is considered “normal” in order to uncover the truth. 

Lysiak continued stressing that today, worldwide press freedom is under threat and journalists are being imprisoned and killed for seeking the truth.

Across the United States, state legislatures are passing bills to censor students from discussing topics like race, gender, sexual identity, and other so-called “divisive concepts.” Lysiak emphasized that information is power, and that “every time information is censored, truth is lost.” 

If you’re a student journalist or adviser being impacted by one of these bills or a school or district policy, contact SPLC’s Legal Hotline. Our attorneys can help you understand your rights and walk you through how to push back against censorship. Just looking for a place to vent? Call the brand new Advisor Vent Space to share what you’ve been dealing with as a journalism adviser. 

Standing up for yourself, and the truth, isn’t always easy. Lysiak shows that it’s possible regardless of age. Near the end of her keynote, one student asked nervously if Lysiak believes journalists need “natural confidence.” She said no, she used to be a very shy child, and it took her lots of time and work to build up the confidence to stand up to critics and police officers. If you’re ready to take a stand, SPLC is here to support you.