We fully support the signing of a written commitment on the part of school administrators to support freedom of the press for school newspapers, even at private schools, where the First Amendment’s free press protections don’t necessarily apply.
For example, the editorial board of The Chronicle, the student news site at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, California, announced that they will get a new faculty advisor for the publication’s 32nd year, which will begin in the fall.
The current faculty advisor, Communications Department Head Jim Burns, they wrote, “proposed the signing of a document created by the Private School Journalism Association with the Student Press Law Center this year that would waive the school’s right to take disciplinary actions based on journalistic work or review the newspaper or articles before publication,” provided any articles did not run afoul of content that would normally be protected by the First Amendment.
School administrators wouldn’t sign the commitment last year, so since the document would represent a “way to solidify our right to free and honest reporting,” the editors of the publication are asking the new faculty advisor, Billy Montgomery, to sign the pledge with school administrators.
Harvard-Westlake is a private school with more than 1,600 students, and student press freedom there is not technically covered by the First Amendment. We know, though, that 14 states have enacted “New Voices” laws, which protect student journalistic expression: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. In addition, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia have similar laws that protect the rights of student journalists.
Perhaps more importantly, a model law in Rhode Island extends student journalistic freedom to both public and private schools.
Even at private schools, student press freedom should apply, as one of a school’s primary roles is to educate students and provide a model for more advanced citizenship. Press freedom extends to journalists in our society and should be a part of school communities that share publications with the public, even if those institutions are not covered by the US Constitution.
There’s no better way to prepare students for citizenship than by modeling, in any way possible, honest citizenship under the guidance of advisors. Free expression need not be constrained by any administrative action that might be inconsistent with the responsibilities real journalists face in using that freedom from the First Amendment.
Furthermore, once the administration has committed, in writing, to student press freedom, student journalists can be more confident that editing or selection of stories is based on the role advisors have of turning students into better or more professional journalists, not on personal opinion about the content itself.
Note that Harvard-Westlake has produced a model student publication for several years, and this call on the part of editors makes no claim that the student press is anything less than totally free. Putting a commitment to journalistic freedom in writing, though, would be more tangible for any students at the school who appreciate concrete proof of the administration’s belief in the value of a free and independent press.