Time for high school journalists to be protected by First Amendment

In his concurring opinion in the Supreme Court’s ruling in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), former associate justice Hugo Black wrote “The freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment, is critical to a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people…It is also a vibrant marketplace of ideas, a vehicle for ordinary citizens to express themselves and gain exposure to a wide range of information and opinions”.

However, 17 years later in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court declared “educators did not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the content of student speech so long as their actions were ‘reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns’,” giving administrators large control over student journalism since.

But now in 2019, the time has long since passed for this to change. Currently, there are two bills in the Texas Legislature, SB 514 and HB 2244, that are part of the New Voices legislation, which  aim to extend the same press freedoms enjoyed by independent papers to student publications.

The Legislature must pass these bills, or some such similar version, to protect safeguard student journalists from unfair censorship.

By passing this New Voices policy into law, legislators would be able to fight the double standard that exists between the student press and other publications. The First Amendment ensures freedom of the press, one of the five freedoms the US was founded on. Why should these rights not to be extended to students?

High school is a time for teenagers to discover who they are, pursue their interests, and express themselves. The threat of censorship inhibits teenagers interest in journalists from doing this and sends the message that their thoughts aren’t valued, or that it is okay to silence the opinions of others. These bills would help guarantee the true values of journalism are taught to students.

Access to full press rights for student journalists can promote a more open school environment by representing many perspectives and bringing issues to light. Just a few miles north at Prosper High School, the principal John Burdett censored three articles last school year, making headlines when he removed an editorial by student Neha Medhira about the school’s response to the 2018 National School Walkout. The contract of the journalism teacher on campus was not renewed for the next year. Much like state-run news agencies in countries with limited rights, practices like this are an embarrassment to a country founded on freedom. Passing this legislation would protect perspectives and promote constructive dialogue in a polarized political climate. Students could address real issues facing them today with the law on their side.

Granting students equal press rights does not mean that students can simply say or attack whatever they want on a school platform. In SB 514, protected speech “does not include speech that “is obscene or libelous…intended to incite the imminent commission of a crime or violation of school policy and is likely to produce that result…or substantially disrupts a school ’s operation”. With such speech not allowed, the benefits of free press would be widespread.

Articles about school policies would not necessarily harm school districts but provide an outlet for its students and a system of accountability. Like journalists exposed the Watergate Scandal that resulted in former US President Nixon’s resignation, student journalists in Kansas questioned the legitimacy of their principal’s degrees, ultimately resulting in her resignation, a testament to the power of the press that all schools need.

With the Legislature’s session ending May 27, time is running out for legislators to pass bills. While education funding has dominated the session, lawmakers must understand the importance of free press for students and vote for New Voices legislation. It is time that student journalism is treated as the real journalism it is.