Celebrating and reflecting on a paradoxical Constitution Day

Constitution Day Sept. 17, 2022

Sept. 17 marks a day to celebrate the U.S. Constitution and all of the rights and protections it affords — including the vital First Amendment right to a free press. This year, it is ironic to celebrate the occasion when there are so many serious threats to student press freedom.

Constitution Day commemorates the day in 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. We celebrate the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which gave us core protections for freedom of the press.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Constitution of the United States, Amendment 1

Now, 231 years later, student journalists’ are denied the clear First Amendment rights which protect professional journalists –– and even the free speech rights of their fellow students. 

What kind of threats to student press freedom?

Earlier this year, school officials shut down the Viking Saga newspaper at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, after officials deemed the paper’s content “inappropriate.” The content in question centered on LGBTQIA+ stories

SPLC began working with and supporting the student journalists at the Saga after they first contacted our free legal hotline, and we continue to stand by them as we urge the school district to reinstate the Saga

In Nebraska, censorship of student media is far too common. We’ve had many recent cases, like when school administrators censored a story about confederate flags in the school parking lot at North Platte High School, or when administrators censored an editorial about censorship at Westside High School in Omaha. 

But Nebraska is not alone in its rush to censor.

Only 16 states in the U.S. have student press freedom legal protections. New Voices laws aim to counteract the Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), which allows administrators to censor school-sponsored media when “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” 

Hillary Davis, advocacy and organizing director at SPLC, said while administrators’ power to censor is not unlimited, the vague language of Hazelwood set a confusing and subjective standard. This causes administrators to frequently misinterpret the decision as allowing censorship for virtually any reason.

Hazelwood created a glaring gap in the First Amendment for student journalists — and only student journalists,” Davis said. “The First Amendment expressly protects and values the freedom of the press, and the Supreme Court made clear in Tinker v. Des Moines that the First Amendment is not suspended the moment a student enters their school. Yet Hazelwood took aim at both those guiding principles, and allowed for the unique restriction only of the student press.”

New Voices laws seek to undo the standard Hazelwood set and reinstate the Tinker standard, restoring student journalists’ First Amendment rights. 

Why is press freedom so important this year? 

Even in states with strong student press freedom laws, administrators sometimes try to unlawfully censor student media. 

California’s Student Free Expression Law is the oldest law in the country, protecting both high school student journalists’ editorial freedom and outlawing retaliation against journalism advisers. Yet, just this month, Daniel Pearl Magnet High School administrators threatened award-winning journalism adviser, Adriana Chavira, with unlawful suspension after she refused to censor her students and their editorial decisions.

Even at a journalism magnet school named for Daniel Pearl — a Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in 2002 — and in a state with an exemplary law protecting student journalists, school officials refused to comply with the law. 

“Recent high profile censorship cases remind us of the ongoing threats to student press freedom. Constitution Day gives us an opportunity to focus on why the right to a free press enshrined in our Constitution is so vital for our democracy,” said SPLC executive director, Hadar Harris. 

“Student journalists’ role is to tell the necessary stories in their communities, and they cannot share these stories and shape an informed citizenry if administrators, parents and the law are always working to silence their voices,” Harris continued. “SPLC’s work is centered on empowering student journalists to reclaim their First Amendment rights, and we will continue fighting with and for student journalists today and every day.”  

On Constitution Day, we need to do our part in restoring and protecting press freedom and student journalists’ First Amendment rights. Report and write bold journalism, get involved with New Voices in your state, be vocal about your support of a free student press. 

SPLC will continue to do our part, supporting, promoting and defending the First Amendment and free expression rights of student journalists and their advisers. The Constitution provides a solid framework. It’s up to all of us to make sure we know our rights and put them into action. 

And remember don’t worry: write the story, we’ve got your back.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has worked to support, promote and defend the First Amendment and freedom of expression rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, and the advisers who support them. Working at the intersection of law, journalism and education, SPLC runs the nation’s only free legal hotline for student journalists. We also provide training, educational resources and support the grassroots non-partisan New Voices movement, seeking state-based legislative support for student press freedom. The SPLC is an independent, non-profit 501c(3) organization based in Washington, D.C.