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.
We spoke with one of the participants, Brennan Eberwine, a senior at duPont Manual High School, about his experiences as an advocate for press freedom and New Voices Kentucky. Eberwine is the current editor-in-chief for his student newspaper, The Manual RedEye.
DY: Could you tell me about how you became interested in advocating for a free student press?
BE: When I really became intensely interested in free press was probably when I got to high school. I learned about what it meant to have freedom of the press and why it was important. And as someone who wants to be a journalist, I thought that it’s something that should be afforded to students so that they have the proper tools to go into the real world if they choose to be journalists.
I was approached by last year’s [New Voices] Kentucky head, Lily Wobbe, about maybe doing this because I had some experience lobbying the state legislature surrounding critical race theory bills last session. She was like, “I really think you’d be great for this. Is this something you’d be interested in?” and I was like, absolutely. This is something that I am so fascinated by, I’m really in support of, as someone who is on a staff that has faced censorship, that has been questioned, and who has been belittled by adults. That’s why I’m really on board.
DY: You mentioned that you’re directly affected by censorship. Can you break down what you’ve experienced?
Unfortunately J&C (Journalism and Communications) has witnessed several moments when the administration didn’t understand what we were doing, or would shut us down or attempt to shut us down.
A lot of the really, really bad instances happened before I came. A previous principal attempted to censor an article about a transgender student a few years back. The transgender student and their parents gave permission for the magazine to run the article and the principal kept on calling the parent and the student over and over and over, taking the student out of class. Eventually, the student said “I don’t want this, he keeps on harassing me. Please just give him what he wants and take the story down.”
Last year, during the second semester, we got sent an email from the principal that said there was an instance of racial insensitivity in the school. And we as a newspaper, of course, are going to report on this because this is an issue that Manual students care about, we want to know the details, we want to know what happens and how to move forward. So we began investigating and the editor-in-chief at the time got called down to the assistant principal’s office and [they] said “you can’t cover this.” It was at a point where we didn’t have an advisor, so we felt very disempowered and we felt that we couldn’t really continue because we didn’t have an advisor to back us up.
Those are two extremely important stories and they should have gone up.
DY: What drew you specifically to the Summer Institute?
BE: I had done quite a bit of lobbying in the past on the state level. So, I had a pretty okay idea of what the Kentucky General Assembly would look like if I were to put this bill forth and I plan on doing it fully. However, I sort of was worried about the reactions from the community. Like, are these lawmakers going to be mean to me now? And that was something that we talked about [at the Institute]. It was really helpful for a step-by-step guide of what the process is and what you need to do. It also gave me great access to a support system to utilize.
DY: What else did you take away from the Institute?
BE: I feel like I also took the importance of a story, the personal story. Because you can strategize and strategize all you want, but what really changes hearts and minds is the story of it all.
Before this, I had thought a little bit about specifically the incidence of racial insensitivity that we were trying to cover. I had thought it was weird that they didn’t let us cover that. And then this Institute really enlightened me. I was like, oh my God that was not supposed to happen. They took advantage of us at a disempowered moment when we didn’t have an advisor to back us up. And that’s a story that should be told.
DY: What advice would you give to students who are also looking to get involved either in New Voices advocacy or advocacy in general?
BE: My absolute number one advice is just to speak. Because I remember, especially before junior year, I considered myself a pretty politically engaged person but it would all just be in my head and I just talked my friends about it. You’re of course talking about it, which is always good, but it’s not the real world. You’re not putting change out. So I really recommend just speaking out in a public way.
It’s difficult and it’s nerve-racking. I’m an introvert and when I tell you that sometimes I’m really really shaky, like during that school board meeting, I felt like I was gonna throw up. But it is rewarding because even though some people will not like you, usually you’re pissing off the correct people. And then there are other people who will really be your ally and really help you. You’re not alone.
DY: To wrap up, can you tell me why advocating for New Voices, particularly in your state, is so important?
BE: It’s important that everybody has a voice. Students are the next generation and we’re going to be the next reporters, we’re going to be the next voters, and why not allow them to be active and allow them to explore topics and write opinions and talk about real issues? Because if we are told to sit down and wait over and over and over again, at some point we’re going to have been shut down so much that we won’t want to be engaged citizens. I believe New Voices is important for the next generation to have a seat at the table.
DY: Is there anything we didn’t touch on that you want to talk about in terms of your advocacy work or about New Voices in general?
BE: I am extremely excited this year for the session. I don’t know if the bill will pass. However, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. That’s another thing we learned in the two-week institute was that all these bills have been put in session for years and that’s about building relationships, building trust, building ties, and I hope I’ll be able to build on what has been done in the past and build a stronger foundation. Maybe I’ll cross the finish line, I’m not going to rule that out. I would love it if we passed it.
I want to see the state truly get better and New Voices is a part of that: make it better for everybody, for LGBT people, for people of color and for students. I believe New Voices will make a better environment for students. and, in turn, they’ll create change.
Learn more about what you can do to restore and protect student press freedom in your state.