A nationwide movement protecting the student press from censorship gains momentum

Demi Vitkute | Prior Restraints | News | September 8, 2017

Laws designed to protect the student press from censorship by school officials are gaining traction around the country, and the American Bar Association recently lent its support to the cause with a unanimous resolution.

Rhode Island passed a new law on July 18 that protects the free expression rights of student journalists, becoming the third state to do so this year after similar laws passed in Nevada and Vermont, and the thirteenth state overall to enact statutory protection for student journalism.

While professional journalists and their publications are typically free from the restrictions of governmental prior restraints, school officials are often able to censor student publications under Supreme Court decisions that treat high school newspapers as part of the school function. The legislation does not protect student expression that is libelous, slanderous, invades privacy, violates state or federal law, or incites students to violate school district policies, or break the law.

The campaign to enact such legislation nationwide is known as New Voices, after a New Voices Act that became law in North Dakota in 2015. New Voices is led by The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit that has defended student journalists for 43 years.

While the laws typically apply only to public schools, Rhode Island became the first state to offer comprehensive protection for journalists at private schools and colleges as well.

“That was a real breakthrough,” former SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said.

California has a similar statute that protects expression in private institutions, but it is not explicitly about journalism.

Last month, the American Bar Association unanimously passed the New Voices resolution during their annual meeting in New York. It was presented by ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. “It endorses the New Voices Movement and it calls on states to support legislation that fortifies the rights of student journalists,” LoMonte said.

Yanine Castedo was still in high school when she decided to spearhead the New Voices campaign in Rhode Island. She says she was inspired to take a stance against administrative censorship, even if she had to do it alone, after she witnessed a couple of her student journalist friends getting censored.

“Just because you’re in school, doesn’t mean you’re not in America and can have your rights stripped away,” she said.

Castedo was her high school’s delegate at the Providence Student Union (PSU), a nonprofit organization formed in 2010 when local high school students joined together to improve schools across the Providence Public School District. Castedo discussed the New Voices campaign with Zack Mezera, the nonprofit’s executive director. She also got in touch with LoMonte.

PSU led the push to pass the law in Rhode Island. Mezera said the action promoted their long-term goal of protecting students’ free speech rights. “As we continue to grow, our strategies for holding the school system accountable will need to become stronger and more diverse. PSU could imagine, for instance, organizing in a few years to create an in-school journalism network across the city that holds schools accountable from the inside,” he said.

Rhode Island’s ACLU wrote a letter in support of the law.

“For these students, the newsroom is a frustrating and disempowering place, where students learn a very different type of civics lesson: That you can’t question or criticize the government, and you’ll be punished if you try,” ACLU wrote.

The letter cited a recently published research by University of Kansas professors. In a survey of 461 high school journalists, 38 percent of all students said they had been told that certain topics were off-limits for discussion in student media, with substance abuse as the number one forbidden topic. Almost half – 47 percent – said they restrained themselves from writing some articles, in anticipation of an adverse reaction from school administrators.

The Providence Student Union, Rhode Island Press Association, New England First Amendment Coalition, Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of News Editors, and Journalism Education Association also signed the letter.

A 1988 Supreme Court ruling of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier gave school administrators the authority to censor the content of student publications, finding that school-sponsored publications may appear to the public as being part of the school’s curriculum. Massachusetts was the first to respond to the Hazelwood decision when more than 100 high school students testified in support of a bill that would shield them from the impact of the Supreme Court ruling. Since 1974, Massachusetts Student Free Expression Act had been a “local option” – towns could decide whether to adopt it. But seven months after the Hazelwood decision, the legislature made the Act mandatory at all school districts in the state.

Since the Hazelwood case was about high schools, the first wave of statutes applied only at the K-12 level. Now, out of the 13 states that offer any kind of protection for student journalists, six of them (Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) still only offer protections for high school students. 

LoMonte says that if you’re a college student in one of the states that passed the first laws in response to Hazelwood, you don’t have explicit protection. “It was only subsequently when courts began applying the Hazelwood principle to colleges that people awakened to the risk,” he said.

The Kansas Student Publications Act, one of the state laws that grants high school students independent control over their editorial content and protects them from administrative censorship, recently made it possible for the Pittsburg High School student journalists in Kansas to publish an article that might have never seen the light of day in another state. The April 2017 article exposed discrepancies in the credentials of the school’s recently hired principle, who resigned four days after it was published. The article earned the students national acclaim for investigative reporting from news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The students consulted with LoMonte about reporting on the article. They wanted to make sure that the law not only protected them, but also their adviser. Fortunately, Kansas is one of the eight states (the others are California, North Dakota, Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, Nevada, Illinois) that protects advisers from being dismissed or otherwise retaliated against for acting to protect a student journalist. A 2016 report, “Threats to Independence of Student Media,” described about seven publicly reported cases of firings of student media advisers since 2015.

The Pittsburg students said there was a lack of community support for their story. Some readers were angry because they thought the article made the school look bad.

One of the best pieces of advice LoMonte says he can give student journalists is that they should not assume that they would be censored, and should try their best to publish their story.

If it’s not possible to run the story in the student newspaper, publishing in a local media outlet is an option. The principle of Flushing High School in New York earlier this year refused to publish the student newspaper because one sophomore criticized some of the school’s teachers in an article. The students then went to New York Post, which reported on the censorship and published the original student article.

Even though Rhode Island, Nevada, and Vermont signed student journalism bills into law in 2017, similar efforts in New Jersey, Washington, Missouri, and Arizona failed. LoMonte said he’s expecting to see renewed efforts in these states in 2018, as well as in New York, Texas, and perhaps Indiana.

In order to be able to pass the statutes in other states, LoMonte emphasized that it is very important for students to document the cases of censorship. “One of the obstacles that we ran against in Arizona was people claiming they did not have a documented censorship problem,” he said.

LoMonte, who led the Student Press Law Center for nine years, left the organization in August to join the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, where he will head the Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. He said he plans to remain involved in the New Voices movement.