For most high school journalism
teachers and publication advisers,
teaching students to be responsible
journalists means instilling
in them an unwavering commitment to
the public’s right to know the truth. In
this time of moral ambiguity, that is a
surprisingly easy sell to young people,
who desperately want to believe their
lives can make a difference.

But teaching this lesson, which is at
the very heart of the profession of journalism,
has never been more difficult.
The censorship faced by teen journalists
and those who work with them
today is constant and debilitating. The
consequences, for the future of high
school journalism and the entire profession,
could be devastating.

Many who have not read a high-school
newspaper in several decades
may be surprised to learn how the
medium has grown up. In 1969, the
Supreme Court ruled that students had
the right to wear black armbands to
school to protest the Vietnam War.
Students, the Court ruled, do not shed
their First Amendment rights at the
schoolhouse gate. As a result, public
school officials were forced to recognize
that some free press protections
applied to the high-school media. By
the early 1980’s, courts across the country
had ruled that unless public school
officials could demonstrate some evidence
that substantial disruption of
school activities was imminent, they
could not censor school-sponsored student
publications simply because they
were controversial or expressed unpopular
views. As a result of these
protections, the quality of high-school
journalism soared as students began to
discuss real issues such as teen pregnancy
and school board policies instead
of limiting their coverage to movie
reviews and sports scores.

In January 1988, the Supreme Court
pulled the rug out from under the
burgeoning success of the high-school
press. In a case that arose from a school
in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, the
Court said that school officials had the
authority to censor stories about teen
pregnancy and divorce from a high-school
newspaper. In its ruling in
Hazelwood School District vs.
Kuhlmeier, the Court said school officials
have the authority to censor most
avenues of school-sponsored student
expression when they can show that
their censorship is “reasonably related
to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
That phrase (Supreme Court legalese
for having an educational excuse) dramatically
lowered the First Amendment
hurdle that lower courts had said school
officials had to overcome before they
could legally censor student media.

To no one’s surprise, requests for
legal assistance received by the Student
Press Law Center (SPLC) in the
years since the ruling have increased
dramatically. In 1988, the SPLC received
548 calls for help from students and
their advisers around the country. By
1999, that number had increased to
more than 1,600.

The sad fact is that for many school
officials, their primary commitment is
not to teaching students the values of a
democratic society or the principles of
good journalism but to ensure that
their school is portrayed in a positive
light, no matter how unrealistic that
portrayal may be. Censorship of the
student media is one way they achieve
that, as dozens of students and advisers
tell the Student Press Law Center
each month. Some recent examples:

  • In Indiana, a principal censored a
    story that painstakingly described
    how freshman football players were
    threatened and beaten by upperclassmen
    as part of an annual hazing
    ritual. After the newspaper staff
    threatened to go to the local media,
    the principal allowed an edited version
    of the story to be published.

  • In California, high school administrators
    censored a story about the
    growing popularity of “backyard
    wrestling,” an organized effort by
    students to mimic television’s professional
    wrestling matches, which
    sometimes results in physical injuries.
    Several months later, national
    newsmagazines were publishing stories
    about the phenomena.

  • After a Florida student wrote a column
    criticizing the rap music industry
    for the role models it creates, her
    school principal prohibited her from
    writing any more articles for the
    newspaper because of her racial insensitivity
    despite the fact that she
    never mentioned race in her column.

  • At a California high school, the principal
    censored a story about the
    school’s teen parenting program because
    it would send the wrong message
    to the community. A neighboring
    high-school newspaper agreed
    to publish the censored story.

  • After a Washington state student
    newspaper published a commentary
    criticizing the food in the school
    cafeteria, the principal prohibited
    the publication of anything “that is
    critical or might be perceived as
    critical” of any school staff member
    or program.

Students are not the only ones who
are confronting this censorship. Increasingly
school officials are threatening
media advisers who refuse to censor
their students as the administration
demands. Thus advisers dedicated to
strong and independent journalism
may well find themselves confronted
with the choice of protecting their students or saving their job. It’s no surprise
that the turnover rate among publication
advisers is alarmingly high.
Those who stay to fight for their students
are true heroes.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges
to face the student media in recent
years has revolved around changing
technology. Teen reporters and editors,
like their professional counterparts,
have found the Internet an invaluable
tool in researching stories and
contacting resources. But the growing
prevalence of filters on school computers
has significantly limited its usefulness.
Students and advisers report being
blocked from sites dealing with
topics like breast cancer and Bosnian
war crimes because the school’s imprecise
filtering software excluded
them. After one publication staff found
that its school’s filters blocked access
to the Student Press Law Center’s Web
site, they persuaded school officials to
provide them an unfiltered computer
in their newsroom. Most students are
not so lucky.

Moving into online publishing has
also caused conflicts. Even schools that
have allowed student editors to make
their own content decisions for the
print version of a student newspaper
have censored an online edition or
prohibited the publication from creating
one altogether. The potential audience
available on the World Wide Web
makes some school administrators even
more concerned about stories that
could tarnish the school’s image.

Facing all of these threats and constraints,
journalism educators are left
to ask themselves whether we are really
preparing students for their role as
citizen defenders of press freedom. Or
is the constant barrage of censorship
teaching young people that there is
nothing wrong with allowing government
officials to dictate what is and is
not news and that free expression is to
be tolerated only as long as those in
authority agree with it?

Despite increasing efforts to silence
the student press, many students and
teachers make their best effort to fight
back. Many go public with their censorship
battles, contacting the local media,
in order to
force school officials
to publicly
defend their efforts
to silence
student expression.
Some students
turn to
their own independent
means
of publishing,
through “underground” newspapers
produced on a home computer and
duplicated at the local copy shop or
through an independent Web site. The
courts have made it clear that school
officials’ ability to censor student publications
distributed on school grounds
that are not school sponsored is much
more limited. And for publications created
and distributed outside of school
(independent Web sites, for example),
school officials’ ability to punish or
censor student expression is virtually
nonexistent. Parents, not schools, have
the right to oversee student expression
when it occurs outside the boundaries
of the school day.

These off campus forms of expression
are an important alternative for
censored student journalists. But when
press freedom is
available only to
those students
who have the financial
means
to support it,
the voices of
poorer rural
and urban students
are lost.
And the benefits
of a trained faculty adviser who can
teach journalistic skills, ethics and responsibility
are missed when students
are forced to turn away from school-sponsored
media. Youth pages of community
newspapers or citywide teen
publications supervised by professional
editors are a great training ground. But
they can seldom reach the same number
of students that would be involved
in school-sponsored publications at
each school.

Although the Supreme Court appears
to have forsaken high school
journalists, some legal protection
against censorship remains. The most
surprising response to the Hazelwood
decision and the censorship it has inspired
has been the effort to enact state
laws giving students free press protections.
The Supreme Court’s ruling only
dictated the limits of First Amendment
protections; it left open the possibility
that states could create their own laws
or regulations that provide student
journalists with greater rights than this
high court recognized under the federal
Constitution. A total of 29 state
legislatures have debated such laws,
and six now have them on the books.
California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Kansas,
Colorado and Arkansas have returned
high-school journalism to the
place it was before 1988, saying students
will be allowed to express themselves
freely in school unless school
officials can demonstrate their expression
is libelous, obscene or will create
a substantial disruption of school activities.

One of the most frustrating aspects
of this ongoing battle for many students
and teachers has been how little
support they sometimes receive from
the local “professional” media. Most
community newspapers and television
stations have no idea if the high-school
media in their community are being
censored simply because they have
never asked the students who produce
them or advisers who work with them.

A high-school teacher’s job was
threatened several years ago because
of a controversial feature published in the student yearbook on which she
was advisor. “Why are they [the local
media] so anxious to see us fail, highlighting
what they perceive are our
students’ mistakes and never willing to
defend our right to be less than perfect?”
she asked. “Would they really
like to be held to the same standard?”

She expressed a sentiment that discussions
with student editors and advisers
around the country suggest is
sharply increasing. A growing number
believe that the commercial media is
only interested in the First Amendment
and press freedom when its rights
are being threatened and have little
concern about those same rights as
they apply to others, especially young
people. After 15 years at the Student Press Law Center, I know that perception
is not an accurate reflection of the
attitudes of thousands of working reporters
and editors at large and small
news organizations throughout the
nation. But I also know that most of
these students will not make journalism
their profession and thus will never
set foot in a professional newsroom.
Their attitudes about and the importance
we place on press freedom will
be fundamentally shaped by experiences
that end the day they graduate
from high school.

If we care about the future of journalism,
we have to show student journalists
that we care about them, too.
Professionals who fail to defend student
press freedom will have only themselves
to blame when young journalists
they hire are one day as indifferent
to the First Amendment as many working
journalists are now to the problems
confronted by the high-school
press.

Mark Goodman is executive director
of the Student Press Law Center in
Arlington, Virginia. The Student
Press Law Center is an advocate for
student free press rights and provides
information, advice and legal
assistance at no charge to students
and the educators who work with
them.
director

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