Adviser’s Guide to Back to School 2021

Nobody is sure what the school year may bring. More lockdowns and school closures? Maybe. Censorship? Almost definitely. SPLC is with you through another unpredictable year.

Bookmark this page, sign up for our newsletter and explore our resources. Then, schedule a time for our experts to teach your students and staff about media law. We built these tools to explain the law in a way that’s easy to understand and gets straight to the point: what do you need to know? What should you do or not do?

When you find yourself in the middle of a complicated situation, or when you have any media law questions, contact SPLC’s free legal hotline — we answer every call.

About us: Since 1974, SPLC has been providing information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them. SPLC is an independent nonpartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

New advisers

Welcome to the community! You’re in good company. The Student Press Law Center is here to support you. On this page you’ll find a collection of resources, guides and tips to utilize in your new role. If you have legal questions or need help, contact our legal hotline.

Award winning adviser and SPLC Board Vice Chair Logan Aimone put together 5 tips for new advisers. Aimone teaches journalism and advises the newspaper and website at University of Chicago Laboratory High School, where he is also the department chair.

Get help:

SPLC’s Free Legal Hotline

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Get involved:

Student Press Freedom Advocacy

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The #1 conversation to have with your students at the start of the year

Students need to understand the ways you can protect them as an adviser, and when you have to step away. Whether you’re an advising rookie or seasoned vet, our guide will help you get the conversation going.

The bottom line is that students need to understand that you will always support them – but that your job may be at risk if you go too far. They need to stand up to protect their own free speech rights (and sometimes, they may even need to stand up to protect your rights too.)

We’ve created this page for you to share with your staff (veteran advisers should check it out too – it’s been recently updated!) Also, make sure to remind your students that SPLC’s free legal hotline is always here to answer any questions, even the small ones!

Fighting censorship can seem intimidating, but your students aren’t alone! We have their back — and yours. Contact SPLC’s hotline for help.

Classroom tools

Bring SPLC into your classroom or newsroom

Let us come and meet you in your classroom or newsroom via Zoom. An SPLC expert will join you for up to 40 minutes and can present on topics like high school student press freedom, public records, covering the coronavirus or an open Q&A on the subject of your choice.

Quiz your students

How well do your students know the First Amendment? What about internet law? Copyright? Have them take our newly updated quizzes and find out.

Use these presentations to teach media law

Produced by the Student Press Law Center’s legal staff, these introductory level presentations are intended for classroom or workshop use and provide students (and their advisers) with an easy-to-follow, practical guide for understanding and avoiding the problems most often confronted by high school student media.

Choose from pre-recorded presentations or use the powerpoint to teach the topic yourself.

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Trending Topics:

Our student media organization is struggling financially, is there anything we can do?

If your student newsroom is facing budget cuts, loss of ad revenue, transitioning away from print or you just want to educate yourself, SPLC has a collection of resources for you. While some of the resources target either high school or college, the strategies and guidance can be easily translated for any kind of student media.

What is the B.L. v. Mahanoy Supreme Court case, and how will it affect my students?

B.L. v. Mahanoy is a free expression case the Supreme Court decided in June 2021. The case has major implications for public school students across the country. Read SPLC’s 5-minute guide to the case to learn the facts of the case, how the Court ruled and the implications for student journalists.

Does HIPAA limit my students’ ability to report on COVID-19 cases?

No. While HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) may limit the information a medical provider can provide about specific, identifiable patients, its restrictions only apply to those who have a “duty of care” to a patient. Journalists have no such duty of care. Where your students lawfully obtain information (ie. not trespassing or aiding/encouraging others to do so) HIPAA cannot be used as an excuse to limit their reporting, though, of course normal invasion of privacy rules still apply. It’s also important to note that HIPAA does not restrict government or medical officials from providing purely statistical information about the number of cases, tests, deaths, etc., attributed to the virus as long as it contains no information that personally identifies someone.

What can my students do if the administration refused to give them COVID-19 information because of FERPA?

Many times administrators cite FERPA as a reason to restrict access to information which the public is entitled to receive. Unfortunately, during the pandemic we’ve seen many administrators misapply the privacy law to try and block information about COVID.

SPLC developed a letter for your students to download and send (or give) to administrators when they misapply FERPA to prevent you from obtaining information to which you have lawful access. 

And remember, your students can always get direct help through SPLC’s legal hotline.

Where can I find more COVID resources for student journalists and advisers?

In SPLC’s COVID Toolkit, you’ll find answers to the top legal questions we’ve gotten around COVID, a letter explaining how student journalism fits the legal definition of an “essential service,” a guide for covering the pandemic, examples of great student coverage and more.

Policies to establish at the beginning of the year

Explain your role (and limits) as an adviser should censorship happen

At the beginning of the year, before any censorship has happened, it’s important to talk to your students about how to take the lead in fighting against any potential future censorship. The bottom line is that students need to understand that you will always support them – but that your job may be at risk if you go too far. They need to stand up to protect their own free speech rights (and sometimes, they may even need to stand up to protect your rights too.)

Model copyright agreement for your staff

Use this sample contract and license between a student media staff member and a student media organization to fairly balance the intellectual property rights of the student creators of a work (which, for example, includes news stories, photographs, graphic designs, etc.) against the business and practical requirements of student media organizations that publish such work.

Guidance on creating a policy about reporting in-person during COVID-19

Whether your school plans to have classes in-person, remotely or a hybrid system this semester, we encourage you to create a class / publication policy about in-person reporting. A simple policy can give clarity and set expectations for your students at the start of the school year.

Sample minor interview consent form

This is a sample release form for the non-commercial use of material provided by a minor to student media. Its primary purpose is to protect student media from claims of invasion of privacy or libel.

Sample advertiser indemnification clause

Rate cards and advertising contracts also commonly include an indemnification clause that shields the media organization from liability caused by an ad submitted by a third party. Use this clause for your student media’s advertising materials.

Model press freedom policies for student publications

Absent state-level protection, students and advisers can also lobby for publication policies at the district or school-level that establish student publications as public forums for student expression. The Student Press Law Center’s model guidelines set reasonable limitations on the material that students can include in their publications and protect the rights of students to be free from arbitrary censorship by school officials.

Support SPLC with a membership

By buying an organizational membership, you help SPLC support, defend and amplify the First Amendment rights of student journalists and their advisers.

Subscribe to SPLC’s newsletters

Want the latest news about student press freedom, excellent examples of student journalism and tips for your own newsroom? Sign up for SPLC’s Weekly Newsletter.

Looking to get more involved in the New Voices movement? Our monthly New Voices Newsletter is full of tips for effective advocacy. 

Join the student media community

Whether you’re a first time journalism adviser or have been doing this for years, we’re so glad you’ve chosen this profession. Share these impressive examples of student reporting with your students to get them inspired (and maybe give them some story ideas.)

21 Incredible Student Stories

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COVID Yearbook Spreads

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SPLC’s Past Award Winners

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And don’t forget the National High School Journalism Convention in Philadelphia, hosted by our friends at the Journalism Educators Association and National Scholastic Press Association, and National College Media Convention in New Orleans, hosted by the Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Association, are great ways to connect with other advisers and students from around the country.

More resources

Explore SPLC’s website or contact our legal hotline for answers to all of your media law questions.