Responding To Censorship

In an ideal world, no student journalist or adviser would ever be faced with a censorship conflict. But censorship is an unfortunate reality for many; thus you need to be prepared. The following checklist provides some time-tested strategies for fighting — and winning — a censorship battle.

Practice sound journalism

First, nothing can help you more in your censorship fight than a well-researched, well-written, fair and accurate story. Similarly, nothing can sink you faster than a sloppy, mean-spirited article full of factual errors and grammatical mistakes. Write something you’d be proud to stand by and defend publicly — because that is what you may be called upon to do. Before publishing a story that you know might provoke a censor’s pen, take the time to make it “censor-resistant”: carefully check all facts, confirm quotes, make sure you have talked to all sides. Ask yourself, “Does it make sense? Is it fair?” Have multiple sets of eyes review it for grammar, spelling, punctuation and editorial errors. In short, be a good journalist. Do not give censors an easy target.

Pick your battles wisely

Fighting for a free student press is a worthy endeavor. But the truth is, some censorship fights are worthier than others. Do you really want to go to battle over the right to use a four-letter word? Or the right to publish a raunchy, rumor-filled gossip column? Is it worth pulling out all the First Amendment stops when the principal objects to an editorial’s description of a curriculum change as “idiotic,” but would agree to your calling it “unwise”? There are no hard rules for determining when a fight is worth the time and effort involved, but the question should always be asked.

Be ready to take the lead

Your adviser — unlike you — is probably a school employee with a mortgage to pay and perhaps a family to feed. Their bosses know this — and many shamelessly use it to their advantage. As an employee, your adviser’s bosses have substantial leverage over what they say and what they can (or can’t) do. Students, on the other hand, are not bound by the employer-employee relationship and have much more freedom to push back against school officials and take a principled stand. Because of this, we will generally suggest that your adviser step back and cheer you on quietly from the sidelines. In such cases, you and your student colleagues must be willing and able to take the leadership role. Moreover, it is a student publication. Your publication. Courts have made clear that it is your legal rights — not the adviser’s — that are at stake. If a fight must be fought, it should primarily be your fight (and ideally, one that parents, alumni and other community members are willing to join). From the beginning it should be made clear to school officials that their battle will be with you.

Do your homework

The law related to free expression in school can be complex — take the time to understand your rights. Every case has its strengths and weaknesses and it is important that you’re able to accurately assess where you stand. Sadly, few administrators know — or sometimes, even care about — the law related to student free speech rights. Too often they act without taking the time to figure out what they lawfully can and cannot do. You may need to help educate them. After today, you should feel better prepared to explain the relevant legal standards and to refute the erroneous — but commonly held — belief that public school officials can censor at will.

Meet with the censors

As soon as the threat of censorship emerges, the student staff — preferably a small group of student editors — should set up a meeting with the censor. The student media adviser, if he or she attends (and it’s often best if they don’t), should act merely as an observer. Students have much more freedom — and in many ways, more credibility — to fight a censorship battle than their adviser, who is a school employee. The purpose of this meeting is to air all sides’ concerns and to resolve the situation before it heats up. Confront the threat, but avoid being confrontational. At all times, be courteous and show the appropriate respect. Take good, accurate notes of what is said and by whom.

If the principal is the censor and refuses to change his or her mind and reasonable compromise is not possible, take your case to the superintendent, and, if necessary, later to the school board. Take time to explain your role as a student journalist. Remind school officials that the press’s goal is not to publish good news or bad news — just the news. Failing to reach a compromise, it is important that these initial meetings end with administrators understanding that the student staff considers censorship a very serious matter. Make it clear that you hope to avoid a fight, but also leave no doubt that you are prepared to take a stand.

Use the court of public opinion

Public pressure can be very effective. A good first step is to draft a press release about the censorship. A press release briefly and accurately summarizes the facts surrounding the censorship, includes a quote about the censorship from your staff spokesperson and perhaps from an expert on censorship or journalism (such as someone from the Student Press Law Center or your state scholastic press association), provides information regarding any upcoming developments (for example, a student protest, a school board meeting, etc.) and includes contact information for those wanting additional information. Send the press release to your local news media (including local high school and college student media) and follow up with a phone call to the editor or news director. Also send your release to civil rights groups, to your state press associations and to alumni, parent and civic groups. In some cases, students have found that creative, peaceful protests (for instance, wearing black armbands, symbolically covering their mouths with tape during lunchtime, passing out copies of the First Amendment after school, circulating a student petition, etc.) have generated favorable attention. Letters to the editor or guest columns in local newspapers can also be effective. Remember, despite your best efforts to resolve the matter quietly, school officials have chosen to censor. Sometimes, rather than a gentle nudge to do the right thing, they need a shove. It is, therefore, crucial that you now do whatever you reasonably can to make sure they are held publicly accountable as censors.

Consider alternative media

Unfortunately, some school administrators choose not to listen. If they consistently censor your school-sponsored student media and refuse to even consider allowing more editorial freedom, you may — in addition to fighting the censorship — want to consider an alternative means of getting your message out, including utilizing social media. A community newspaper may be willing to publish your work. Off -campus websites or underground (independently published) student publications are entitled to significant First Amendment protection. In fact, as long as an independent publication contains no disruptive or otherwise unlawful speech, public school officials must allow for its reasonable, in-school distribution. Most courts have found public school officials have even less authority to regulate (or punish) students’ private Web sites or print publications that are created and viewed outside of school.

Consider your legal options

If, after appealing the censorship within the school system and making your case in the court of public opinion, school officials still refuse to budge, your next step may be a court of law. Unfortunately, cases that are worth challenging administratively and publicly are sometimes not always appropriate for a legal challenge. The facts of a case, the quality of evidence, the availability of witnesses and the history of court cases in a particular jurisdiction are among the factors that must be considered. An experienced media law or civil rights attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons of filing a lawsuit. Student journalists and their advisers who need information or assistance should contact us here. All of our services are free of charge.

In the end, however, a positive court ruling is not the only measure of victory. In fact, many successful censorship battles have ended with the censored material never published. The victory in such cases is achieved in the battle itself — in having the courage to stand up for what is right. While a completely free and independent student press may not always be achievable, the very act of reminding others why it is important and worth defending — fighting the good fight — is always an honorable accomplishment.

— Adapted from “Press Freedom for High School”