It’s the 1988 Supreme Court Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, which allows schools to regulate content for high school and college newspapers they sponsor. The decision says that a school has a right to exercise editorial control if it has “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Since the decision does not specify what those concerns can entail, it’s easy to see how this puts our freedom of speech under attack. During Student Press Freedom Day
on Friday, it’s important to highlight what’s at stake when student journalists are censored in this way and what can be done.
It has taken a toll on student voice and freedom of speech overall. For example, in Westside High School in Omaha, Nebraska, student journalists are self-censoring
after the school district began enforcing a “prior review” requirement, which would allow administrators to review articles before they are published. This delay also causes an issue with publishing relevant topics in a timely manner. In a statement
to a local news outlet, the superintendent said that “Articles should not flow from students straight to building administrators like many of them have been. Instructors need to own their program’s content and can send to administration only if they feel they need help and support.”
However, states do have a choice to counteract Hazelwood laws by passing what is known as “New Voices” legislation
, named after the grassroots movement started by the Student Press Law Center — a non-profit organization that supports and defends the rights of student journalists.
So far, 14 states
, including Nevada, where I live, have passed New Voices legislation.
But in other states, such as Missouri, students continue to fight to report the truth within the limits imposed by Hazelwood. Mitch Eden, an adviser at Kirkwood High School in St. Louis and an advocate for student press freedom, talked to me about the importance of the campaign.
“There are people opposed to granting students and advisers first amendment freedoms students have in school,” Eden said. “I think for some politicians, it’s losing control. But for me, it’s telling kids you believe in them, you trust them, and in a free open journalistic society, we can educate, we can spur positive discussion, maybe we can get somewhere.”
So why are governments so reluctant to extend First Amendment protections to students even when the articles that they want to print have already been reviewed by newspaper advisers at the school?
Some might say that it’s a liability concern, which should always be taken seriously, but the restraints placed on student journalists around the country seem to be more about censoring what truths are reported. In the end, it’s an example of having the wrong priorities. And after four years of the media being bashed by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, the relationship between politicians and the media — at any level — is strained.
Some might also say that what is published in a school newspaper does not hold the same power as what is reported in mainstream media, but there are several examples of student journalists making national headlines
because their work helped to break stories
Whatever the reason, it is up to us, the general public to pressure elected officials to right this wrong. “We need to step up and have our voices heard. We need to contact our politicians and tell them that this matters to us, that this isn’t a political issue,” Eden said. “It’s the First Amendment for a reason, written by our founding fathers. We need to understand it, protect it, and use it, or we’re going to lose it.”
Unfortunately, the opportunity to save these press rights only stays at the state level for now. Student press freedom should be a federal discussion. However, while focus is primarily on fighting a deadly pandemic and a bitter political division, it’s unlikely that student press freedom would even be brought up in Congress at this time.
As student journalists continue to push for the passage of New Voices legislation in states, we also have to gain the trust of adults and administrators by good communication, agreed terminology, and accurate reporting in order to cover more sensitive topics. At times, covering certain topics won’t be easy, and we need school officials to understand this. It may require cold, hard evidence or brutal, scathing commentary that may not be appealing to administrators, prompting them to want to censor us. Yet, it’s the truth. To censor the truth from the general public is one of the most dangerous threats to American democracy.
I think it’s so important to show students that their thoughts and ideas matter. The First Amendment is a right and a guarantee that our founding fathers wanted for everyone, and it shouldn’t be taken away from student journalists. Student press rights and freedoms should be protected.
These freedoms allow us to report the truth effectively and inform our peers — and, as history has shown, the nation.
It empowers the way we think, we feel, we work. As Eden said, “It’s the First Amendment for a reason.”