When reflecting on Free Speech Week and the protections of the First Amendment, it’s easy to overlook the youngest members of the press: the student journalists based in our country’s high schools, colleges and universities. While these young journalists may not be facing the exact same threats as their adult counterparts, there are serious threats to the student press, and the current anti-press environment has only made things worse. But luckily for students across America, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is ready to assist young journalists no matter their legal or ethical predicament.
“The core of our work is to provide immediate answers to legal questions where situations heat up and get more complicated or maybe more confrontational,” explains Hadar Harris, executive director of the 44-year-old organization. “We have a network of over 200 volunteer attorneys who are top media lawyers from across the country — literally from Hawaii to Vermont — who stand ready to assist and to take on cases pro bono where the student journalists or their advisers require more assistance.”
But the SPLC isn’t just there for student journalists when they’re in trouble. Students and advisors can reach out to the SPLC and their team of lawyers whenever they have a question about their legal rights or need ethical guidance on an in-progress or published story. The SPLC runs an advice hotline for those in need of urgent assistance, and their website is jam-packed with resources covering nearly any query a student journalist could have. (Editor’s note: I turned to the SPLC for advice when I was a college journalist more than a decade ago.)
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., which severely limited the rights of student journalists. The Court allowed that school administrators can require prior review or censor student publications if the school is funding the creation of the publication. But in the 30 years since, many schools, from high schools to universities, have attempted to overstep the protections Hazelwood gave them and strip student journalists of their First Amendment rights.
“[Hazelwood] expanded the ability of school administrators to censor student work for any reasonable pedagogical purpose, which is a really overly broad very vague standard that is exploited and used by school administrators often to censor or quash stories that are distasteful to them,” Harris says. “It could be that they don’t like the issues being reported on because they are political or controversial issues. More often these days it’s because there are stories that are published by student journalists that reflect poorly on the school.”
Among recent instances of administration overreach is a case at the University of Southern California in which a school official attempted to prevent a student journalist from covering an open forum for students for The Daily Trojan, the student-run newspaper. Meanwhile, at Missouri’s Lindenwood University, students had their print magazine canceled in what they believe is an act of retaliation by the administration following publication of several controversial articles, including stories on mental health, poor faculty pay for adjuncts and the 20th anniversary of a campus murder.
While the administrators clearly see fault in the students’ reporting, Harris notes, “Student newspapers are not meant to be a public relations vehicle for the school. They’re meant to be reporting on the community — and that means both the school community and the community at large.”
Situations like this are why the SPLC has been advocating the adoption of New Voices laws across the country. These laws “provide a common-sense list of the harmful material that a school can restrict from student media, including libel or obscenity” and protect student journalists from administrative overreach, which often occurs when educators and administrators are unhappy with a piece of journalism.
High school students at Vermont’s Burlington High School recently used their state’s New Voices laws to fight back after their principal demanded they pull a story about an investigation into a school administrator. With help from the SPLC, they also successfully fought an attempt by the principal to instate a prior review policy.
Currently, Vermont is one of only 14 states with New Voices policies on the books, but those rights extend not only to students at public institutions, but private institutions as well.
And student journalists are more important now than ever before.
“As newsrooms in professional outlets have been cut and the number of professional journalists has declined, student journalists have taken up the slack in reporting on town council meetings, on school board meetings, sometimes even on statehouse affairs because they’re located in the state capital or they’re located in an area where their university is the largest employer in the community,” Harris says. “So their reporting on what’s happening in the universities is actually very directly relevant to what is happening in the community at large.”
Even as student journalists fill bigger roles in their communities, they’re still often underestimated because of what they publish – like when student publications have articles about curriculum changes or a campus party. But as Harris notes, “newspapers you know The Washington Post has a style section. And so not everybody is reading every section of a newspaper. They’re finding the news that is most relevant to them.”
With all the challenges that face student journalists, the future can sometimes seem grim. But Harris says that seeing these young journalists take on these challenges has filled her with hope.
“I am incredibly hopeful because in this past year we have seen students step up and use their voices in ways that we haven’t seen for quite a while… and as those voices are valued and respected and are able to lead important conversations, that’s good for us as a nation,” she says. “I look at the work that many student journalists are doing, and they are making big differences. If you put that together with these broader movements of student [activism], I’m very hopeful for how we move ahead and how students can lead.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.