American high school journalists fight school-ordered censorship

  1. Learn about the First Amendment but don't live it
  2. Lesson 1: freedom of speech
  3. Lesson 2: suppression of freedom of speech

Students in high schools across the United States are finding articles in their school publications removed or suppressed by their schools, while school officials try to appease parents’ concerns and maintain order by limiting negative press.

Against a backdrop of declining local news, decreased media freedom, and “false news” that travels faster than facts, free-press defenders worry the press is being hindered further through the censorship of student news.

Student journalists, who often know the most about what goes on among their fellow students, are being censored frequently and blatantly, advocates and students told WikiTribune. They say increased censorship is leading to the suppression of vital information about school happenings, and in some cases, misconduct.

“I can wear a political message on a T-shirt and the school can’t stop me. But, ironically, if I take that same political message to the editorial page, the school probably can stop me,” says Frank LoMonte, director of Brechner Center, a Florida freedom of information think tank and executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center (SPLC). “Everyone knows that makes no sense.”

Elizabeth Collins, who edits her school magazine, was told by her school that a page about the Parkland school shootings in February didn’t belong in the Sickles High School yearbook, Solleret. In the article, students aged 10-12 shared their thoughts on the shooting, including recommending more safety measures in American high schools. But the principal, Mary Freitas, wants to remove the page before it’s published in April, says Collins.

Her team decided to create a page on school shootings because “so many have happened this year and it’s more than relevant,” she says. “Unfortunately, about a week before our deadline, she made us delete the entire page because she thought that political topics don’t belong in a school yearbook. She said she was just trying to avoid parent phone calls.”

“That shooting affected so many people and for our principal to make us delete the page without considering the voices she is silencing and the work put into the page makes me upset. It’s so wrong.”

Avoiding harm to school reputations

The First Amendment ensures an American’s right to freedom of expression. It applies in almost every corner of the nation, including school campuses. But a historic ruling that set a precedent for schools to wield authority over student newspapers has led to widespread censoring of articles, says LoMonte.

The landmark Hazelwood School Disctrict v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision – popularly known as “Hazelwood” – gave high school principals the right to censor work they deem unlawful, poorly reported, incorrect, or disruptive to the school’s learning environment. Unlike an earlier Supreme Court decision that established the so-called Tinker test, the Hazelwood ruling determine that students must surrender their first amendment rights at the newsroom door, including those provided by the First Amendment.

But powers are being misused, and school officials across the United States are limiting content that will make the institution look bad, according to experts and high school students who spoke to WikiTribune.

The most common reason for censorship, and the most common reason the hotline at the Student Press Law Center rings, is a school’s reputation being put at risk, LoMonte says.

“I’ve heard the phrase countless thousands of times: ‘You are not allowed to make the school look bad.’ That is far and away the number one reason students are given when their journalism is withheld or rewritten,” says LoMonte. “It’s not about safety, it’s not about legality, it’s not about avoiding harm to other students. It’s about avoiding harm to the reputation of the school.”

The proposed spread in the Sickles High School yearbook, Solleret, that 17-year-old Elizabeth Collins says is being suppressed by her school principal. Photo courtesy Solleret/SPLC

Every day, the SPLC receives calls from students seeking legal advice about their press freedom – 800 a year, or more than two a day, says LoMonte. Given the nature of censorship, there are no definitive statistics that capture the magnitude of censorship in schools. However, LoMonte says it’s becoming more “blatant.”

“It used to be embarrassing to be caught censoring, but administrators have so thoroughly convinced themselves that newspapers belong to them that they don’t bother concealing it.”

“The law makes it easier than it used to be for school officials to silence a story that’s critical of the school,” says Mark Goodman, a journalism professor at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He estimates that “well over half” of student journalists in American public high schools have experienced censorship of some kind. The Hazelwood ruling gave schools a sense that they had “free reign” to relentlessly censor student publications, he says, adding that censorship is an even bigger problem today than it was in 1988, when Hazelwood passed.

Most high school principals have the right to inspect a school newspaper or magazine before it’s published. “Prior review,” as it’s known, is general practice, says LoMonte. But it’s not good practice in students’ eyes.

A story about a teacher being fired for inappropriately texting a student was pulled by Herriman High School in Utah. The Flushing High School student newspaper that contained an article criticizing a teacher’s performance was also censored. An article about a new drug trend at a Warrenton, Virginia, high school was taken down by a principal who said it was too “adult” for the publication’s student readership.

Censorship is less common but not unheard of in universities, LoMonte says. Unlike high school newspapers, which are mostly funded by the institution and created in journalism classes or after school, university papers are usually independently funded and free from interference.

“It’s financial control that leads to censorship. College media is impervious,” says LoMonte.

Students replacing local reporters

With more people consuming news digitally, and local newspapers declining (StatistaBrookings Institution), teenagers are increasingly replacing local reporters as watchdogs of their communities.

“Young people are increasingly the news lifeline for entire communities and not for students,” says LoMonte, who is concerned that without free student journalism some communities will be left in the dark.

“It’s not at all uncommon that the only journalist going to local school board meetings is 15 years old,” he says. “That’s increasingly common. That’s the other reason that we can’t take censorship lightly anymore.”

Frank LoMonte, who was director of the Student Press Law Center for 22 years, at an event on First Amendment Issues in Public Spaces Symposium. Photo by: Mark Schierbecker via Flickr
Frank LoMonte, who as director of the Student Press Law Center for 22 years defended student press freedom. Photo by: Mark Schierbecker via Flickr

‘New Voices’ fight for First Amendment

Retaliation against school censorship is gaining momentum. The New Voices movement advocates for anti-censorship laws to protect student-led media in high school and college.

Fourteen states, including California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and most recently Washington have passed laws that give students stronger free expression protection than Hazelwood. However, six of them (Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts) protect only high school students.

“New Voices is trying to ‘cure’ the illness that is the Hazelwood ruling,” says Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, which supports high school reporters. “Schools can be havens for First Amendment rights either by policy or practice, so the passage of New Voices legislation would make that happen for all schools within the state.”

Bills to protect student journalists are in some stage in six states, including New YorkIn February, a bill to preserve student press freedom in Indiana failed to pass.

But some students aren’t aware of policies that protect them, and censorship is still occurring in states with student press protections, says LoMonte, who receives more calls from California (which has protections) than any other state.

New Voices acts don’t cure censorship overnight,” he says. “There are people who either don’t know that the laws exist or are hoping that the students don’t know that the laws exist.”

Even young people who do understand their rights aren’t using them. “They learn to self-censor, so they stop themselves from even coming up with these ideas because they think, ‘What’s the point of coming up with an idea if the principal or the teacher isn’t gonna let me do it,'” says Katina Paron, an advocate for First Amendment rights for students in New York.

In Paron’s survey of 62 high school journalists that asked students about censorship, 53 percent reported they’d had content censored before publication. Of those students, 60 percent said the reason they’d been censored was a negative portrayal of the school, while 73 percent said the reason given was controversial or “inappropriate” content.

“When I’m working with students not in a school-based environment, and we talk about the school paper, [a lot of them say] the paper sucks … and their papers suck because there’s administrative censorship that’s happening,” says Paron.

Student journalism losing purpose

We’ve had about a dozen things cut in my time here but the reasoning always varies,” says Grace Marion, editor in chief at Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy High School newspaper, Playwickian, and member of the newspaper’s staff for four years. The 18-year-old explains the newspaper is subject to a strict policy of review, so she keeps a document of some of the censorship on her online portfolio

“What can and cannot be published is fairly unpredictable,” Marion says. “I have printed a glowing review of ‘Naked Lunch’ and an interview with a musician talking about trading music for weed at 14, but I can’t print kids’ quotes talking about how they want to work harder in school in the New Year.”

Similarly, articles about sexually transmitted disease rates, the effects of self-harming, and an article by Marion about an alleged armed robbery of a student at her school were also cut.

“Sometimes they accuse us of writing lies regardless of how many people confirmed a story and other times they won’t even give a reason besides that they have the power to do it,” she says.

Grace Marion, the 18-year-old editor in chief of a Pennsylvania high school newspaper says her school’s review policy is one of strictest in the United States. Photo by: Grace Marion

Along with the feeling of powerlessness that comes with censorship, student journalists who have had articles binned are questioning their work. “It makes you want to stop writing, to know that anything you write might just be tossed out,” says Marion.

The National School Boards Association declined an interview request and an interview with the New York State School Boards Association is pending.

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