The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, or it’s supposed to. But for high school journalists, a lot depends on what state they live in.
Two episodes from last year illustrate the point.
Last summer, in Grand Island, Nebraska, the public school district shut down the Viking Saga, after this venerable high school paper published an issue dedicated to Pride Month and LGBTQ+ issues. The paper is still shuttered, although the ACLU and other groups have now filed a lawsuit against the district in federal court.
Just a few months later, the Pearl Post, a high school paper in Los Angeles, printed the name of a librarian who had refused to obey a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The librarian asked the paper’s faculty advisor to remove her name, and the school principal demanded that the advisor do so. When the advisor refused, she was hit with a three-day suspension. But after press organizations and members of the community protested, the suspension was rescinded.
These very different outcomes may reflect a key difference between California and Nebraska: California is one of 17 states that has a law protecting freedom of the press and expression by students. Nebraska does not. But it’s not a red state/blue state thing. Interestingly, student press freedoms appear to be a bipartisan concern. The 17 states include “red states” like North Dakota, Kansas and Arkansas, along with “blue states” like Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Indeed, just last month, West Virginia became the most recent state to pass student press protections. The eyes of student press freedom advocates are now on highly populous New York, where earlier this year legislators in the state Assembly and Senate re-introduced a Student Journalist Free Speech Act. Although similar legislation failed to get out of committee during the last legislative session, its chances look much better this time around, advocates say.
Protecting high school press freedoms might seem a no-brainer to First Amendment defenders, and back in the 1960s the U.S. Supreme Court looked like it might agree. In 1969 the Court ruled, in Tinker v. Des Moines, that the city’s school officials could not stop students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. As Justice Abe Fortas famously wrote in the majority 7-2 opinion, students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
But in 1988, the Court narrowed that protection, declaring that it did not apply to high school journalists. In Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the justices ruled — this time 5-3 — that officials at a high school in St. Louis, Missouri had the right to censor stories about teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on students. The majority opinion held that since the school paper was sponsored by the school, school officials could decide which topics were appropriate and which were not.
Ever since, advocates for student press freedoms have been trying to restore what they call the “Tinker standard,” although now they have to do it state by state. The New York state legislation, which was introduced by state Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo and state Senator Brian Kavanagh, bans prior restraint of the output of student journalists, as well as retaliation against student reporters and their advisors. There are exceptions, however. Schools can censor any content that is “libelous, slanderous, or obscene,” that constitutes an “unwarranted invasion of privacy,” or is otherwise unlawful. These provisions, which could become subject to contentious interpretations in future cases, have nevertheless helped to attract bipartisan support.
According to Kyle Karnuta, a legislative aide to Donna Lupardo, the legislation — which has attracted significant bipartisan support — is now being examined in the education committees of the New York Assembly and Senate. If it passes muster there, it will go to the floors of both houses for a vote, followed by a hoped for signature by Governor Kathy Hochul.
Hillary Davis, the Advocacy and Organizing Director for the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., thinks the bill has a very good chance of passing. Such bills “always take a few cycles to get through,” Davis says, adding that it took three tries to get the successful West Virginia bill through that state’s legislature.
“We have wonderful sponsors who are working hard, and very dedicated student journalists who are keeping this issue at the forefront of people’s minds.”
Michael Balter served as Paris correspondent for Science for 25 years. He now works as an independent journalist based in New York’s Hudson Valley. He also taught at Boston University and New York University.
Featured image from Kiplinger2019_0009 on Flickr.
Tagged under: high school journalism