Tuesday, November 12, 2019
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Bill would give student journalists more ‘freedom’

Now under consideration in the Illinois General Assembly is House Bill 5902, which would reduce the amount of censorship authority school officials exercise over student journalists. Similar bills are being considered in four other states, including Maryland.

Martin O'Malley talks with journalists from Montgomery Blair H.S. in 2010
Martin O’Malley talks with journalists from Montgomery Blair H.S. in 2010 (Edward Kimmel / Flickr)

If HB 5902 becomes law in Illinois, a student journalist would have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported by the school district, either financially or through the use of school facilities, even if the media is part of a class.

The Illinois Principals Association and other professional associations have expressed opposition to the bill, which would limit school officials’ role in controlling the content of school-sponsored media. An earlier version of the bill didn’t survive a veto 19 years ago by then-Gov Jim Edgar, who said it would have created situations where “the entity responsible for the newspaper—the school board—cannot exercise full power over the paper’s content.”

But not exercising “full” power is kind of the point. In 1997, kids weren’t able to turn to Facebook or Twitter to post comments that might be considered unflattering about their schools. Today they can and often do take their embedded journalism away from possible censorship in school-sponsored media to a wider and possibly more harmful audience on social media. School newspapers present what should be a learning opportunity in civics, freedom (and power) of the press, and so on. They shouldn’t be mere vehicles for a school district’s official position.

In Maryland, Senate Bill 764 is the “New Voices Act” this year. It would have a net fiscal impact of zero and would give students free press rights, as long as what they write isn’t libelous or slanderous, doesn’t constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, doesn’t violate federal or state law, and doesn’t incite students to engage in specified types of dangerous, unlawful, or disruptive behavior.

In an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, bemoans the state of civics education in the US, saying we should encourage students to exercise their rights in a democracy, not censor their speech, even in written form.

“Universal access to the Internet and social media have made censorship not just educationally unsound, but ineffectual and counterproductive,” he writes. “When the principal of a Chicago high school recently forbade students from writing about their dissatisfaction with changing the start time of the school day, the author simply took the article to an off-campus blog—where it received vastly more attention.

“The explosion of social media has made it more urgent than ever for students to learn the values uniquely conveyed in the newsroom: balance, verification, accountability, ethics. Journalism is a solution for schools, and it’s time to stop treating it as a problem.”

Bills like this seek to undo or at least clarify what many school districts have construed as a blank check to censor student speech, given to them, they think, in the case of Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier. In that 1988 landmark case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of school administrators to exercise editorial control over school newspapers as long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns and not to the viewpoint expressed.

Occasionally, though not very often, school administrators have taken that narrow focus from the Supreme Court and, by expanding the definition of “pedagogical concern,” used it to delete any content that expresses a viewpoint with which they disagree or, especially, one that paints the school or a school official in an unflattering light, even if such speech would be allowed in media that isn’t sponsored by the school.

But Hazelwood never gave school officials an unlimited right to censor anything they don’t like. Justice Byron White wrote for the majority:

Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. [It was] not unreasonable for [school administrators to find that] frank talk [by students about their sexual histories and the use of birth control, even though their comments were not graphic, was] inappropriate in a school-sponsored publication distributed to 14-year-old freshmen.

A school must be able to set high standards for the student speech that is disseminated under its auspices—standards that may be higher than those demanded by some newspaper publishers or theatrical producers in the “real” world—and may refuse to disseminate student speech that does not meet those standards.

When censoring speech, a school must consider the emotional maturity of the intended audience in determining whether to disseminate student speech on potentially sensitive topics. In an elementary school, the Easter Bunny might be a sensitive subject; teenage sexual activity might be touchy in a high school setting.

Applying a blanket censorship, though, based on Hazelwood actually detracts from any pedagogical tools or teaching techniques, especially in civics, that schools should promote.

The bill is also under consideration in Missouri, Nebraska, and Washington, and the New Voices Act has become law in eight states so far.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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