EdBoard: Student journalists shouldn't have fewer rights just because they are students

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This past Thursday was Student Press Freedom Day, with the theme of “Bold Journalism and Brave Advocacy.” We, the members of The Tartan, believe that student journalism is a crucial part of any educational institution and that students should have the freedom to express themselves and their beliefs through the rights granted to them by the First Amendment.

In the 1969 ruling “Tinker v. Des Moines,” the Supreme Court stated that “students did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property.” While this case dealt with students protesting the Vietnam war by wearing black armbands, the ruling protects all forms of student expression. However, it’s important to note that these rights apply to students at public schools, not private schools.

Still, in 1988, the Supreme Court case “Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier” ruled that “the school had a legitimate interest in preventing the publication of articles that it deemed inappropriate.” Under the Hazelwood standard, public school administrators have the right to censor student publications if the administration deems something “inappropriate.” But what exactly falls under the realm of “inappropriate”? The ruling states that if the material is “inconsistent with the schools’ education mission,” the school has the authority to limit that speech, even if the government can’t. Why should students have less rights the moment they step through school doors?

The rights granted to student journalists vary by institution. As a college newspaper at Carnegie Mellon, The Tartan has the ability to publish content without any form of prior review. However, high school students (and younger) are subject to the Pennsylvania school code, which states: “School officials may require students to submit for prior approval a copy of materials to be displayed, posted or distributed on school property.” This is prior review, the point at which administrators can censor student publications.

There are a number of barriers created by the Hazelwood ruling for student journalists. Like mentioned, anything administrators deem “inappropriate” can be censored. An example of this comes from the Lancer Ledger, the student newspaper at General McLane High School in Edinboro, Pa. The story covered “mature” topics, including sex trafficking and pornography. Despite how topical these are to teenagers, administrators called the article, “well-written and educational but not appropriate” and censored it from publication.

So should students be denied exposure to the topics of sex trafficking and pornography while in high school? According to a report from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit which provides reviews and ratings for media and technology, 71 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 stated they intentionally viewed pornography in the last week. Additionally, the average age for a person to become involved in sex trafficking is 12 years old. So are these topics really not appropriate for high schoolers?

Prior review also may encourage student journalists to self-censor. Even if a student journalist wants to write an article, the idea that an administrator might flag it is discouraging, so they may shy away from topics that challenge the administration. This is an unfortunate practice that is intertwined with prior review and can only be resolved with its removal.

While The Tartan isn’t affected by prior review, we believe that all student journalists, regardless of education level, should be free to express themselves through whatever means they have, including journalism. Additionally, the current Pennsylvania school code fails to protect student media advisers, like teachers, from retaliation when they support the expression of student journalists. The Tartan fully supports protecting student journalists and their advisers, along with a robust and free student press.

Fortunately for student journalists and journalism advisers, there is a movement called “New Voices” that aims to remove prior review from student expression and protect advisers from administrative retaliation. There are currently 16 states that have implemented laws that protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists. A number of states have introduced New Voices bills and many more having strong organized efforts, including Pennsylvania.

Though legislation has not yet been introduced in 2023, prime sponsors are committed and bill numbers are expected shortly. The Pennsylvania legislature has a two-year session, and legislation can be introduced at any point during the session.

We, the members of The Tartan, fully support all efforts that aim to remove prior review of student expressions. Students shouldn’t be granted less rights solely because they are students, and teachers should not face retaliation for content published by the students they advise. We believe that teaching students proper journalistic practices is how good journalists are made, and that this kind of censorship has no place in student-run publications. There is no reason why student journalists should have less rights, solely because they are students.