Opinion

A plea for the rights of a student journalist

On October 15th, a reporter for The Knightly News walked into class to find that his article about the well-publicized controversy surrounding sexually suggestive at this year’s Homecoming had been stricken from the paper.  Not because it was defamatory, obscene or otherwise reckless, but because North principal Michael Zapicchi, a subject of the story, deemed it “unproductive” and “factually inaccurate.”  Whatever the motive for such censorship, which has been a recurring problem since then, it has no place in a news forum intended to educate students about the fourth estate.  The case-by-case censorship currently exercised by administration, regardless of its intentions, runs contrary to the larger educational goal stated in the program of studies, and deprives the school community of the opportunity to be engaged and informed.

In 1966, in the heat of the Vietnam War and the counter culture movement, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech in schools in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, signaling a huge gain for students’ First Amendment rights.  It also sent a symbolic message to all minors who felt they were oppressed by school authorities during a time when authorities tended to forcibly prevent the spread of dissenting ideologies.

Twenty-two years later, a noticeably more conservative court under President Ronald Reagan redacted much of that message in the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The court ruled in a 5-3-split vote against the freedom of student newspapers, arguing in the majority opinion that “public school curricular student newspapers are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection than independent student expression” (supreme.justia.com). It goes without saying that a free press is just as essential as free speech to any democratic institution, whether it be the larger American society or the microcosm that is public school.  Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, however, is the precedent decision that governs student newspapers today.

Fast-forward 26 years.  Ten states—including California, Kansas, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania—have realized the injustice of this overhanging decision, and have implemented legislation or specific educational code language negating the decision in state courts and protecting the rights of student journalists (splc.org).  Currently, a case in Pennsylvania is pending between the Neshaminy High School Playwickian and its school district over a unanimous editorial board decision to stop publishing the name of the school team, the Redskins, in order to respect Native Americans. The school district is doomed if it goes to court, because Pennsylvania has a protection clause in its education code.

The Knightly News operates under the shadow of the Hazelwood decision—and without state protection to guarantee the rights of its student journalists.  The purpose of the Journalism class at High School North, as described in the Program of Studies, includes learning about “contemporary challenges to the First Amendment and the Hazelwood decision” and an emphasis on “newspapers as the fourth estate, indispensable to continuing freedom and responsible citizenship.”  These purposes are inspirational and exciting, but North is falling short of its written goals.  The term “the fourth estate” refers to the press’ responsibility to hold those in power accountable by investigating issues and informing the public without government censorship or limitations.  A strong press is vital to any community, whether it’s a nation, a town or a high school.

Students from Pemberton Township High School in New Jersey are attracting attention by attempting to circumvent the state’s lack of protection for the rights of student journalists—they presented complaints of prior review by the school administration to their Board of Education in January.  The school district’s justification for their censorship sounds rather familiar: no malicious intent, just a desire to “guide them (students) into doing positive stories.”  Though “positive,” feel-good stories are an important component of a school newspaper, this ideology directly conflicts with the primary purpose of news as the fourth estate, which is to bring attention to issues that need fixing, to present important information regardless of the nature of the topic.  The best possible solution to this issue would be to do what states like California and Pennsylvania have already done, which is to pass a law or change the state education code so that student journalists are protected under the law just as they were before the divisive Hazelwood precedent.  This would give students more protection and assurance, promoting healthy risk-taking and investigation, and would also assure administrators of the appropriate level of regulation, making the tricky balancing act easier for everyone involved.

But the Hazelwood case does not say that administrators must censor according to the best interest of the “educational process”—it says that they can.  The choice to censor is just that: a choice.  Journalists’ rights should not change just because the paper is affiliated with a school, even if the school board funds the paper (as they do The Knightly News).  In fact, an educational environment is perhaps one of the most important places to teach a new generation of prospective journalists about their rights.  West Windsor-Plainsboro is in the vanguard of education in the sciences, English, and mathematics, but in journalism we’re lagging behind.  Although New Jersey law is grounded in the precedent of Hazelwood, North administrators can, and should,  lead a shift toward student rights, encouraging students to gain real-world journalistic experience and engaging the student body as citizens of their school community.  Let’s not be afraid of controversy.  To see our school through rose-colored glasses is no good to anyone.  To look in depth at the issues that are relevant to high school students and need addressing gives us an opportunity to improve in areas that need improvement, to engage us in dialogue about issues that affect us, and to help  prepare us for the real world.

Two things can be achieved by ensuring our rights as a forum of free expression: the readership would be more deeply informed about the unique issues only a school paper can write about, and we the writers would be more educated about the real workings of journalism; our ambitions and skills as budding reporters and investigative minds would be encouraged rather than stifled.  Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with writing a stellar feel-good story about student council or a great teacher, but we should not be limited to those stories—that would make for, frankly, a boring and unbalanced paper.  Operating with the same freedoms offered in the real world teaches us valuable skills and fosters a love for the trade; censorship, even the threat of censorship, teaches intolerance and fear.

To anyone from administration reading this: this is an invitation to discuss an issue more complicated than just a relationship between publishing information and the implications directly resulting from that action.  I hope that anyone else who has gotten this far is a bit more informed and recognizes the legitimacy of our quest. The possibilities for this paper and the students involved—which include our readership, the entire student body—are endless.  All we ask is to be allowed the rigorous educational experience WW-P prides itself on giving.

Big changes don’t happen overnight, but they begin by engaging a community in dialogue.  Dialogue, in turn, can happen only when all sides are informed—and that’s what journalism does best.

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