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SPLC professionals stand with students for press rights

With only 14 states giving press rights to student journalists, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is currently spearheading the fight for student press rights. The SPLC utilizes their access to attorneys and legal aides by introducing and reintroducing New Voices legislation to states around the U.S.

Lindsay Weimer | The Feather Online

Thankfully, New Voices legislation was passed in California over 40 years ago, allowing The Feather students to publish without prior review.

The legislation protects a student journalist’s First Amendment rights and allows for responsible journalism.

Staff attorney at the SPLC Sommer Ingram Dean shares a historical court decision that influences student press rights and New Voices legislation.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said that students do not give up their First Amendment rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates and established broad rights for student speech and expression in school,” Dean said. “Unfortunately, about 20 years later, the Court decided another case (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier). This significantly restricted these rights by giving school officials authority to censor school-sponsored student publications for any ‘legitimate pedagogical purpose.’”

Previously working as the editor for her high school newspaper, Dean expands on the damage Hazelwood has set into effect since it’s ruling in 1988. The Hazelwood ruling severely limited the rights that were granted to students during the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case.

“This vague standard has been manipulated and utilized by school officials across the nation who are eager to censor any potentially negative stories about their schools,” Dean continued. “New Voices legislation seeks to restore the First Amendment protection Hazelwood stripped away. We need a movement in this way now more than ever, as professional media outlets are dwindling and coming under attack and student journalists are left to fill in the gaps.”

Based in Washington, D.C., the SPLC was founded in 1974. Self-described as “small but scrappy,” the SPLC not only works to expand student press rights, but provides teachers and students with free legal, informational, and training guidance.

The following podcast features Superintendent Jeremy Brown expanding his views on student press rights.

Previously working and interning for major news organizations such as the Associated Press and National Public Radio, Dean shares the importance of student journalists and their role in the community. Dean also acknowledges that for some lawmakers student journalists are outside of their scope and are unaware of their struggles.

“Student journalists are the most perfectly positioned people to shine light on issues within the school community that the public has a right to know about,” Dean said. “Censorship is detrimental to society as a whole, and that is no less true in the school setting. We cannot afford to have students afraid to practice the important civic duty of holding the government accountable when it is the voices of these very students that are leading us into the future.”

Continuing his fifth year as FCS Superintendent, Jeremy Brown shares his unique perspective on student press rights as a school administrator.

“I think students need press rights because it’s not like they are going to magically turn 18 and understand all these responsibilities and rights,” Brown said. “It’s understanding that by giving students some guidelines and borders, when they transition out of school they have practice with the responsibility of journalism. Because journalism is a responsibility and privilege all rolled into one.”

In February, a case arose in Denver where a student journalist was effectively censored by school administration from recording the recent teacher strike. Students had been sharing video and photos with local news organizations which sparked a response from administration.

Using their resources, the SPLC connected a targeted student with legal help. Although the student chose not to take legal action, this situation exemplifies the SPLC’s dedication to student journalists.

The following tweet from CNN features an opinion piece written by Neha Madhira, a censored student, sharing her experience as a student who had her First Amendment rights limited by her school. Madhira was censored by Prosper High School’s administration after the school newspaper reported on various issues that the school felt did not cast itself in the best light.

Lori Oglesbee-Petter, the faculty journalism adviser’s contract was also not renewed following the incidents, despite Oglesbee-Petter guiding the school’s online newspaper to over 175 awards just that school year. Later the principal and school reversed their decision to allow Eagle Nation Online to publish editorials without prior review.

After speaking out, Madhira and another classmate received support and were able to give a TED Talk and be featured in a story from the New York Times.

“We are definitely in a time where journalism is nothing but attacked and student journalists are at the frontline,” Madhira said. “What student journalists learn now is what they will carry on into their futures, and if it’s nothing but the results of the Hazelwood case, self-censorship or being called, ‘fake news,’ we will never know the definition of a free press and how it’s maintained.”

With degrees from Baylor University and Georgetown University law Center, Dean shares why schools may fight against New Voices legislation.

“In some cases, administrators do not want students to enjoy heightened First Amendment protections,” Dean said. “These school officials are operating out of fear that they will not be able to control the image of the school if students are given complete editorial control over school publications. Many may mistakenly believe that the student-run publications are just an extension of the school, and, therefore, school officials should retain the authority to censor whatever they like.”

Dealing with press disputes at previous schools, Brown agrees with Dean and explains why he thinks states may not grant full student press rights. Research completed by the University of Kansas professors in 2016 shows that out of 461 student journalists, 38 percent were told that certain topics were out-of-line for student media. The research also found that 47 percent of the journalists said they restrained themselves from writing articles in anticipation of the administration’s negative reaction.

“Generally in life, if there are rights withheld, it’s usually about control,” Brown said. “The administration doesn’t want to share control or give up control to students. And I think some other states either believe in no control or believe in responsible control. I think some states refuse to give control, and the other true thing about life is that when people don’t want to give up control it means they are hiding hurt, or an incident has occurred and so the state acted irresponsibly and took away those rights.”

Kaylie Clem | The Feather Online

The Feather staffers meet during a monthly moment when the staff is all together to plan articles, videos and media packages.

The Feather Editor-in-Chief, Sam Cross, ‘19, sees the importance in giving students press rights as they are the path to the future.

“Student press rights allow teens to express their views and share their voice and story. These rights provide an avenue of free speech to the next generation that will someday be elected President, lead corporations, and serve their country on the front lines.” 

From an inside perspective on schools, Madhira explains how both students and administration are responsible for protecting student’s rights.

“I think student press rights impact administration positively all the way,” Madhira said. “There are some administrators who value the image of their school over quality journalism, but if they truly value community members they can handle the truth being told in their community. There are so many schools where student staff foster great relationships with their administrators and also make their own editorial decisions. It’s up to all of us as students and administrators to work towards becoming those schools.”

Dean also shares how she thinks New Voices Legislation benefits school administration as well as students. Student press rights align with the late Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas’ belief that student journalism should be reflective of real-world journalism.

“A school’s goal should be to train and prepare students for life outside the walls of the classroom,” Dean said. “Giving students the space to practice responsible journalism while under the direction of experienced journalism advisers is one of the best forms of education and preparation for the real world. Administrators should want to foster this kind of environment, not stifle it. “

Using her experiences to learn, Madhira realizes her boundaries and cautions other journalists to use their prudence when writing.

“Well, with all rights come responsibilities and if students want to have and keep a free press and not be subject to prior review, prior restraint or censorship,” Madhira said, “it is imperative they know their rights and follow the rules. Student journalists must use ethics and common sense when it comes to reporting, keeping their readers in mind. We must also strive to build good relationships and have streamlined communication with school faculty/staff, community members, etc. Organizations like the JEA and SPLC are great places to learn more about all of this.”

Currently, nine states have New Voices measures introduced in their state legislation. In 2019, the SPLC plans on introducing the legislation to 11 states. In 2018, seven states had bill introduced and one passed in Washington. For legal aide, contact the SPLC.

For more articles, read Choices: Teen pressures, substance abuse contribute to health issues, social misconceptions, CSPA convention 2019 recap or Sports records: Baseball. 

For another article on student journalism, read Student voices in private schools.

Vijay Stephen can be reached via email and Twitter.

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