From the Back of an Envelope: Reflections on Student Press Freedom Day, Bold Journalism and Brave Advocacy

Bold Journalism. Brave Advocacy. Student Press Freedom Day

Student Press Freedom Day started as an idea scribbled onto the back of an envelope at a JEA convention in Dallas in November 2017. We were quickly approaching the 30th anniversary of the Hazelwood decision and I had just started in my role as SPLC’s executive director, but I was shocked by the carve-out of rights that Hazelwood created and the impact that targeting student journalists continued to have. Why were students being censored for doing good journalism?

Headshot of Hadar Harris
Hadar Harris, SPLC Executive Director

I knew we needed to draw attention to it in every way possible. And given my background in activism and advocacy, I knew that a national day of action could be just the tool. So, with only six weeks of planning, Hazelwood Day of Action (later renamed to Student Press Freedom Day) was born.

We started in 2018 by having a series of Facebook Live events (remember those?) with student journalists and experts across the country. In 2019, we launched the Year of the Student Journalist (and the official name “Student Press Freedom Day”) with the Newseum and Freedom Forum Institute, featuring student newspapers at the Newseum and holding events throughout the year. More than 60 student newspapers published op-eds calling for student press freedom protections.

In 2020, just before the world shut down, we held an important discussion of student press freedom at the National Archives. And in 2021, we launched a dedicated Student Press Freedom Day website, started training students to write op-eds, held a documentary screening and discussion, and pivoted to find ways to make the day meaningful despite the pandemic. Last year, using the theme “Unmute Yourself,” we combatted self-censorship by focusing on the impact student journalists were making across the country, featuring an Instagram Live with New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in conversation with students from Townsend Harris High School. This year, in addition to the many activities taking place, we are joined by more than 30 national organizational partners who are sponsoring events, posting on social media and continuing to show their support for student journalists.

But throughout, Student Press Freedom Day has been designed as a day of celebration and action — by and for student journalists. Student Press Freedom Day is not about events or op-eds on one specific day. It is about the work that goes on all year long. It’s about students’ Bold Journalism: breaking stories and providing crucial information to their community, and Brave Advocacy to protect and expand student press freedom. Thus, this year’s theme. 

Bold Journalism Brave Advocacy – Student Press Freedom

That was surely the case this past week, when student journalists at The State News, the student newspaper at Michigan State University, despite the trauma and fear within their community, did vital reporting in the wake of a mass shooting that terrorized their campus, leaving classmates and professors injured and dead. Or the student journalists at The Stanford Daily who broke the story that data for research by the university’s president had been falsified. For that story, The Daily became the first independent, student-run publication to win a George Polk Award in Journalism, with staffer Theo Baker (’26) receiving a Special Award.  

Yet for as many stories of student journalists’ bold, impact-oriented journalism, we we also have stories of their efforts being censored or covered up. Take, for example, the recent case in Bulloch County, Georgia, where the school district confiscated a student journalist’s recording of a public school board meeting. Or the attempt to shut down the student newspaper, The Viking Saga, at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, after they ran a Pride issue highlighting LGBTQ+ experiences.

But student journalists are fighting back — protecting, and in many cases, restoring, their First Amendment and press freedom rights to do good journalism. They are engaging in Brave Advocacy. After a protracted fight over public records requests, students at the Peralta Community College in California are suing the school to comply with their requests. In California, award-winning journalism adviser Adriana Chavira was reinstated and disciplinary charges dropped when SPLC worked with her, her union and her students to ensure that California’s student free expression law was applied correctly. Students, like Olivia Suggs in North Carolina, are increasingly standing up at school board meetings demanding change in student media policies that ensure student editors make editorial decisions for their publications. 

The New Voices movement continues to grow as advocates work to pass legislation to restore the First Amendment rights carved out 35 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Bills have been introduced this year in states as varied as West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. These efforts have been led by students. Sixteen states now have New Voices laws, and SPLC is working to be sure that students and advisers know their rights and the law is being applied fully. 

It is time to celebrate Bold Journalism and Brave Advocacy by student journalists this Student Press Freedom Day. 

We at the Student Press Law Center are proud to be in the background of so many of these stories. Our committed team works every day to promote, support and defend the First Amendment and press freedom rights of student journalists and their advisers, and we do that in partnership with students, empowering them to lead the fight to tell their stories.

It has been my privilege and honor to lead this team over the past five and a half years, and as I get ready to hand the baton over to new leadership, I celebrate the Bold Journalism and Brave Advocacy that SPLC empowers every day. I am gratified to see the way that Student Press Freedom Day has continued to evolve — and so glad that I scribbled that idea on an envelope five years ago.