Freedom to write

A look back at student journalism and its future

Across the nation, students work to produce interesting content in their student-run publications, whether it is a school newspaper, yearbook, broadcast channel or other methods of publication. These topics can range from local news that nobody else picks up, to features on someone in the community. Occasionally, students will write a story that can potentially be deemed controversial by the administration, such as an article explaining an action the school board took, which the community might not agree with. The article can be struck down before it’s even published due to censorship laws in the public school system, leaving the public without information. These censorship laws have been the results of two landmark court cases regarding student journalism.

The first major ruling that influenced student journalism was the court case Tinker v. Des Moines back in 1968. This court case helped to lay the foundations for freedom of speech for students. It stated that students “did not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” This meant that while at school, students still had the freedoms of speech, assembly, petition, religion and most importantly, press.

The freedom of the press was challenged in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988. An article about students’ experiences with teen pregnancy and divorce was supposed to be published in the paper, but the principal of the school deleted it before it was published. In a 5-3 ruling, the court decided that the principal did not violate the students’ rights.

This decision has impacted schools tremendously. Now, all content that is distributed on school grounds must be approved by the principal before distribution. This practice is called prior review and has been in place ever since the Hazelwood ruling.

Since this ruling, states have passed bills to overrule this decision. This initiative has become known as “New Voices” and bills are currently in place in 11 different states to protect student journalists’ first amendment rights. The main goal of these bills is to eliminate the prior review aspect and allow for students to write uncensored.

The first state to pass a bill along these lines was Arkansas back in 1995 under the “Arkansas Student Publications Act” that eliminated prior censorship in high schools. Since then, amendments have also been made to include college publications as well.

Now, many states, including Pennsylvania, are trying to adopt legislation that will eliminate prior review for students. Many of these states already have bills in committees and are trying to get them up for a vote by either the state Senate or the state House of Representatives.

Even though these bills could potentially eliminate prior censorship for student journalists, there is still a major obstacle for idea generation: self-censorship. Sometimes, when students come up with ideas that they deem controversial, they will strike down their ideas, which will never be seen by the public, even if the idea would be beneficial to be printed. This could be due to the student reaching administrative censorship, so the idea is deemed unprintable and put to the side.

When prior censorship is eventually eliminated, students will have the freedom to print any and every story that matters to them and the community without fear of being struck down before publication. Why should students’ rights be limited in a public school when they aren’t limited anywhere else?