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Student journalists celebrate Student Press Freedom Day with call for New Voices in Pa

Claudia Huggins, Editor-in-Chief (Print)

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What’s the first thing to come to mind when one hears the words, “student press”? Possibly the kid at the basketball games taking pictures with a press pass around his or her neck, or the kids walking through the halls with stacks of newspapers in their hands on distribution day. While both of those may be parts of the usual job of a student journalist, there is much more that goes into it, as well as many obstacles.

Whether a school district is big or small, covering decisions and issues that come up at school board meetings is all the same in importance. Without the local newspaper to cover issues like these, the duty falls on the student journalists, and staying up for hours on end, writing a news, features, editorial or sports story that needs to be published the next day is only a fraction of the process.

The Tinker vs. Des Moines case is one that almost every journalist knows and stands behind. Back in early December of 1965, a group of students at school wore black armbands with a white peace sign in support of a truce in the Vietnam war. On December 14, Des Moines school met to come to the conclusion that any student wearing a black armband would be asked to remove it. Refusal to acquiesce to the policy would subject the offending student to disciplinary action.Two days later, two of the students in the group, Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt, wore their bands to school anyway. When asked to remove the bands, the students refused and were suspended from school.

Their parents helped them sue the school for violating the students’ right to expression. After having their case dismissed on multiple occasions, they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the highest court in the land ruled in favor of Tinker, 7-2. The majority opinion stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  

Although the Tinker vs. Des Moines case ruled in favor of the students, others have not been as fortunate. In 1988, the students of Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis published an article highlighting their peers’ experiences with teen pregnancy and the impact divorce can have. Prior to publication, the principal of Hazelwood deleted pages containing the articles without the students’ knowledge. This decision would lead to the famous case of Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier.

The students took their case to a local court, leading to a ruling in favor of the school. The students appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. This court concluded that the newspaper was a “public forum” and could only be censored under extreme circumstances, ruling in favor of the students. However, it didn’t end there. The school appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school in a 5-3 vote, stating the principal’s censorship did not violate the students’ free speech rights. They also noted that since the paper was a school-sponsored publication, the school had the right to censor articles they deemed inappropriate for immature audiences.

The Tinker vs. Des Moines case created a platform for student journalists and reinstated the rights of students as they walked in the school building. The Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier case set this notion back, and gave administrators that looked to censor unflattering articles the legal standing to do so.

According to newvoicesus.com, The New Voices Act has three main goals: to restore the Tinker standard of student expression in schools everywhere, to protect the publication of a student-run press and to extend those protections to private institutions, such as universities or high schools, and allow their students to have the same protections and rights as a public school.

Although the Pennsylvania School Code states, “School officials may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school or its administration,” it still happens. In June of 2016, Neshaminy High School, which is located just a half hour outside of Philadelphia, faced tough challenges from their administration.

After refusing to publish the word “Redskin,” the school mascot, in a piece they had written when it was deemed a racial slur by a staff vote, their access to post stories on their online version of their newspaper, “The Playwickian,” was revoked for over a month. The paper’s editor in chief Tom Cho teamed up with a local law firm to combat the school’s actions.

Come mid-April, an article was published with the term written as “R——.” The very same day, the article was removed from the website, as well as Cho’s editor administrator privileges. Soon after, the article was reuploaded with the entire word written out.

Censorship is everywhere, but fighting back in a respectful and professional manner is where differences can be made.  All decisions, no matter the general perception, should be subject to the same scrutiny and review in an easily accessible way.

Too often, student journalists can get caught up in the idea that we’re “just kids.” However, we have a much bigger job at hand, one that can make a huge impact on the community. Informing the public and reporting the truth is an important task, and if we don’t do it, then no one will.

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Freedom Area High School's Student Newspaper
Student journalists celebrate Student Press Freedom Day with call for New Voices in Pa