Journalism isn’t a Hobby — Why Students Deserve the Full Force of the First Amendment

C79BE877-BC25-491A-8A9E-8C94FDF5186CJanuary 29th is National Student Press Freedom Day, set aside to highlight their achievements and the importance of allowing student journalists the full protection of the First Amendment. Since the landmark Hazelwood decision, student journalists have been subject to increasing censorship, administrative prior review, and other practices that attempt to affirm they aren’t “real journalists.” But at the same time local papers are shuttering or merging, leaving student papers and journalists the only voices in some communities. This year’s theme seeks to show the world what student journalism really looks like.

  • In Kansas, when students set out to do a profile on the recently hired principal, they uncovered discrepancies in her reported credentials. When they pressed her, they found her answers evasive. Coached by their advisor to take the work seriously, tried to verify certain facts the new principal provided, like her BFA from the University of Tulsa, only to discover that the University doesn’t offer that degree. The students ran the article, leading to the new principal’s resignation.
  • In Utah and Vermont student journalists broke stories about teacher misconduct, only to be censored by the administration. In the end, the censorship helped these stories become reach audiences nationwide, leading to reversals in the administration’s policies, and New Voice legislation in Vermont. In the era of #timesup and #metoo, it seems especially short sided to silence the voices of students speaking up against teacher misconduct.
  • Grace Marion the once editor-in-chief of Pennsylvania high school paper The Pickwickian, won two awards in 2019 for her exceptional journalism in high school which culminated in a searing op-ed about why she was skipping her own graduation to protest her school’s censorship of their own poor and likely illegal behavior.
    From that Op-Ed,

    Dozens of articles have been cut from the newspaper without reason. Basketball coverage, New Year’s resolutions, investigative pieces, anything you could think of has been subject to prior restraint. Our staff has been repeatedly berated for writing these pieces by administration.

    One newspaper member was outed to his family as homosexual by Neshaminy administration my freshman year. Another as transgender the same year, and another as bisexual the year after. All for articles that Neshaminy didn’t like.

    My father once received a call saying that I would be in physical danger should I publish a certain piece. I was later pulled out of class for about an hour to sit in a room full of adults and have our principal scream at me about how school papers do not have the rights that the constitution guarantees us all. This wasn’t even the first time that I had gotten that speech.

  • Students from The University of Chicago and Brown broke stories respectively about favoring donors’ children for internships and exclusive dinners hosted by trustees filled with mostly wealthy students. Both showing the wealth inequality that is so hard demonstrate, but felt strongly around the country.
  • It was a student paper that broke the national story of Trump’s Special Envoy to Ukraine resigning.

This isn’t a fluke or a trend. This is student journalism. Each year more and more states try to enact New Voices Legislation, returning student newsrooms to their pre-Hazelwood protection by the First Amendment. Too often these bills die a quiet death, with no lobbyists invested in the outcome. But we can change that.