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New Voices laws will shield students from censorship

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

As North Carolina lawmakers convene the General Assembly’s 2019 long session today, student journalists, educators and press freedom advocates are calling on state legislatures throughout the country to end censorship of high school student media.

Student Press Freedom Day is dedicated to furthering the #NewVoices movement, which seeks to pass laws protecting young writers from suppression in all 50 states. Fourteen states have enacted New Voices legislation, according to the Washington-based Student Press Law Center. Lawmakers in Virginia and Nebraska are currently considering New Voices bills there.

Reeling from well-publicized yearbook censorship cases — one of which made international news — North Carolina needs a state law to defend student publishing from image-conscious administrators and preserve the integrity of scholastic journalism instruction.

As news outlets around the world reported in May 2017, Richmond Early College High School in Hamlet confiscated yearbooks after distribution began, withheld the rest and destroyed the entire press run over controversial senior quotes including one graduate’s citation of President Donald Trump’s refrain, “Build the wall!”

School officials said the comment could offend Hispanic students. Yet squelching political speech to prevent discussion and debate isn’t a legitimate educational goal. Many members of the graduating class had attained voting age. School’s the place where civics should be taught and current events discussed openly. Censoring a young voter’s political statement is indefensible.

In a second spring 2017 case, Piedmont Community Charter School in Gastonia blotted out a handful of senior quotes with black permanent marker before it would allow the yearbooks to be distributed. There was no profanity, vulgarity or sex, just an innocuous inside joke and a quote calling Gandhi a racist. For the record, academics have documented Gandhi’s statements disparaging black Africans. Isn’t an institution of teaching and learning the perfect place to grapple with a popular historical figure’s complicated legacy?

Many high schools consider journalism a worthy subject to teach, but they get squeamish when students put their lessons into practice. In Springdale, Arkansas, administrators stopped publication of the Har-Ber Herald after the student paper examined five Har-Ber High football players’ transfer to a rival school. Student-athletes said in on-the-record interviews that they transferred to play football and not for residency or academic reasons, a violation of school district policy.

Young reporters who broke that story deserved A-plus grades, scholastic journalism awards and consideration for college scholarships. Instead, their paper was barred from publishing.

The most common causes of high school censorship are viewpoint-based discrimination (the principal doesn’t like your politics) and image control (the story makes the school look bad). Those are wholly illegitimate reasons to pull a story from the school paper or yank a yearbook out of students’ hands.

Schools run roughshod over student media simply because they can. In the poorly reasoned 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that student-edited high school media is subject to administrative control. Students enjoy less expressive freedom in their school newspapers, yearbooks and broadcasts than they do in the hallways. The high court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision protects ordinary political speech and activism at school.

Statehouses can’t eliminate individual rights recognized by the Supreme Court, but they can and sometimes do expand the scope of those rights. The New Voices movement is a positive example of federalism counteracting a constitutional defect in the nation’s courts.

New Voices bills restrain administrators’ worst impulses, but they also require students to report and publish responsibly. Safeguards baked into the legislation allow teachers and principals to intervene in order to prevent material that’s libelous, defamatory or obscene from appearing in school publications. 

Student Press Freedom Day organizers encourage supporters to use the hashtags #StudentPressFreedom and #CureHazelwood on social media today. If you agree that principals and superintendents shouldn’t contradict the curriculum in high school journalism classes by playing censor, there’s something else you can do.

Call, write or email your state lawmakers and ask them to sponsor a New Voices bill. Our high school students are learning to express themselves and uncovering stories that deserve to be told. It’s time the grownups greet these emerging voices with a listening ear rather than a muzzle.

The Wilson Times

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