Why freedom of the press should extend to school newspapers

Experts say censoring student journalists can stifle skill development and result in bad publicity
By: | August 19, 2019
Students who write news stories at Kirkwood High School enjoy freedom of the press in school. Writing without needing administrator approval on stories teaches the full scope of the First Amendment, the principal told DA in a 2017 story.Students who write news stories at Kirkwood High School enjoy freedom of the press in school. Writing without needing administrator approval on stories teaches the full scope of the First Amendment, the principal told DA in a 2017 story.

The issue of freedom of the press in school arose again earlier this year when the editor of a California high school newspaper wrote a feature story about an 18-year-old student who was making online sex videos.

When administrators of Bear Creek High School in Stockon got wind of it, they took what was—until then—an unusual step: They asked to review the piece prior to publication to determine whether it violated a state obscenity rule, The New York Times reported.

After grabbing national headlines, the high school paper ultimately ran its story without any intervention by administrators, the Times reported.

And that’s exactly what should have happened when student journalists enjoy freedom of the press in school, says Sarah Nichols, president of the Journalism Education Association and a journalism teacher at Whitney High School in California’s Rocklin USD.

“We want to see students spurred into action by things they feel are important to bring to light,” Nichols says.

“This was a really powerful example of students knowing this story would resonate with their readership, and they went about reporting and researching it in a way that was thoughtful.”

Freedom of press in school & presidential politics

Fourteen states, with legislatures controlled by both parties, have passed freedom of the press in school laws giving student newspapers more protection against censorship, and similar bills have been proposed in about a dozen more states.

“I know that administrators, when making these decisions, are coming from a place of good intentions,” Nichols says. “But it’s misguided to think that someone in a position of power is doing the best thing for kids by stifling student speech.”

Read more: Censoring student journalists can suppress learning, educators say

Censorship issues can be avoided when the journalism teacher or other advisor and the newspaper staff develop a close working relationship with administrators. School culture also improves when students know they can express themselves, Nichols says.

“Everyone in education wants to create engaged citizens who, heading out into the workplace, are contributors who solve problems in a diverse society,” she says. “There’s no better way to do that then to give students these experiences through the stories they produce in high school.”

And as the 2020 presidential campaign heats up over the coming months, many students will seek outlets to express their opinions on candidates’ platforms. Student newspapers are an ideal channel and advisors can help guide students in evaluating the bias and credibility of local and national media organizations.

“Journalism gives students a chance to do all of this in a way that defines their generation,” Nichols says. “I hope administrators see this as a powerful component of learning over the next 18 months.”

Censorship backfires

Free speech issues can arise when administrators become overly concerned about a district’s public image and try to control the messages being sent to the community, says Edmund J. Sullivan, executive director of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University in New York.

“If the paper reports on a tardy policy, for instance, administrators may get in an uproar because they want to be the only ones talking to parents and the public about that policy,” Sullivan says.

Yet the skills needed to practice responsible journalism are the very same soft skills that have become a curricular priority in many communities, he adds. “The way in which journalists slice and dice life in order to make sense of it has become a life skill for all students,” Sullivan says. “I would think schools would want more opportunities to practice it with their students.”

When it comes to a district’s public image, a robust journalism program—with a trusted advisor and well-trained reporters—can help administrators quell rumors and misinformation, he says.

Read more: DA op-ed—Fact, opinion or fake news?

“Administrators can give student editors a perspective that may change the way they’ll cover the issue,” Sullivan says. “Administrators are not manipulating the kids; they’re engaging in a dialogue so they don’t get into a situation where the administration says the paper has to pull a story.”

Now more than ever, administrators’ attempts to stifle potentially controversial stories tend to backfire—often to the detriment of administrators. The story is sure to end up on social media and attract the attention of other news outlets.

“Censorship will boomerang,” Sullivan says. “And there will be more publicity for whatever it was the administrators were trying to downplay than if they had found a way to work constructively so students could report on it.”