Interview by Devin Yingling, Communications Fellow at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This past summer, 19 student leaders participated in the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices Student Leaders Institute – a free online program for students to improve their leadership and organizing skills, develop their role as leaders within the New Voices movement, and identify a strategy that could be instrumental in their state’s New Voices efforts.
This week, we spoke with one of the participants, Adriana Rodriguez, a senior at Lyndhurst High School in New Jersey, about her second year participating in the Institute and how she’s furthering her advocacy efforts now. Rodriguez is the current editor-in-chief of her student newspaper, The Lighthouse.
DY: Could you tell me about how you became interested in advocating for a free student press?
AR: It started when I applied for my journalism class sophomore year. I had an interest in law and journalism, but I didn’t know how to put those interests into something that I can work with. So I joined journalism and my journalism advisor suggested it [the New Voices Student Leaders Institute] to me and I went and I actually really liked it.
Sophomore year me a couple of years ago was very shy, not very outspoken. But once I joined that summer program and I saw other students like me who liked law, I started opening up more and expressing my opinions more.
DY: What made you want to come back to the Institute this past summer?
AR: The people. Last year, I saw different students from different states and they talked about their issues on censorship. And I really liked how we were able to collaborate with one another and connect with one another and bounce ideas off each other. I think it was a great place to form connections with people. Especially with the advisors there, they were great resources for me and other students to kind of work our way into advocacy.
DY: What are some new things that you learned this past summer?
AR: They touched upon our school policies like we should look into ours and not just what our state is doing. That really stuck with me. So I reviewed my own school policy. And I wanted to take initiative, like ask my school board if we could fix this or update this, stuff like that.
DY: What else have you been up to in terms of your advocacy work since the Institute?
AR: I looked into my own school policy and I worked with my adviser and I asked her if it’s good for me to email the superintendent, and ask him if he’s seen the New Jersey legislation with the New Voices and if they’re looking to update [the school policy].
I wrote him the email and I actually got a response today that he’s looking forward to meeting me and wanting to talk more about the update. I want to follow through more with that and incorporate the New Jersey legislation into our school policy because our’s hasn’t been updated since August of 2014. So I just want to make sure that it’s up-to-date and it’s fair for students in journalism.
DY: Personally or in general with your New Voices work, what are some goals that you have?
AR: I just want to keep up with this type of thing, like working with different policies, looking at different legislation, looking at the contents of a bill and trying to apply it to my own community.
DY: Can you talk about the importance of New Voices legislation, particularly in your state?
AR: I know that New Jersey’s legislation is one of the more powerful ones and one of the stronger ones because it also protects teachers as well as students. And I think it’s significant that we also touch upon teacher protections as well. Teachers shouldn’t have to worry about them losing their jobs just for protecting a student whose article was censored by administrators.
DY: In general, why is it so important to have a free student press?
AR: Just to protect students’ speech, like letting students freely express themselves and letting student publications write an article about something controversial to the community. Like abortion, if they want to touch upon abortion and educate the community on that, they shouldn’t have to worry about a teacher or an administrator censoring them because they believe that it’s harmful to high school students or because they are young and have impressionable minds. They shouldn’t have to worry about that. They should be able to freely bring out information to the public without having to fear retaliation or being censored.
Learn more about what you can do to restore and protect student press freedom in your state.