Let’s start with the obvious: the first amendment is a vital component of our democracy. As Americans, we have protected freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Or, some of us do. Unfortunately, these basic rights aren’t universally applied, and it’s a problem for student journalists. Thanks to the precedent set by the 1988 Hazelwood decision (which ruled that a St. Louis high school student’s rights were not violated when they were censored by school administration) school journalism programs, students and advisers are operating in an environment that does not recognize students’ first amendment rights. Shockingly, the Hazelwood decision has even been applied to student journalism at the collegiate level. It’s a problem, and it’s got to stop. There’s a silver lining, though: people are paying attention, and there’s a movement afoot. It’s called New Voices, and it’s important.
What is it?
The New Voices Act is legislation that protects student freedom of expression within the school environment, and seeks to address and serve students journalists in three ways, all aimed at meeting the varying needs of student journalists at all levels. First, the Act seeks to restore the Tinker standards, which protect student speech so long as: “it’s not libelous, an invasion of privacy or creates a ‘clear and present danger’ or a ‘material and substantial disruption’ of the school”. Secondly, the Act supports the protection of students at public colleges from becoming subject to Hazelwood-based rights violations. Finally, the Act would extend those same rights to protect college students at private schools.
Who are they?
Steve Listopad, Founder of New Voices, and Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, head up the New Voices movement. They’re taking it state by state, proposing legislation with the goal of earning protection for student rights. This October, the Society of Professional Journalists got behind the effort, too.
From an adviser’s POV:
Mitch Eden, journalism adviser at Kirkwood High School in Missouri who has testified twice in front of the Missouri Legislature, says New Voices is important because it would show students the value of their voice. Students, he says, learn and model civic action when they collaborate, evaluate, and communicate, and protecting their right to do so has to be paramount. Fortunately for Mitch and his newspaper staff, Kirkwood High administrators support student expression, but his advice for students and advisers facing administrative adversity is to seek help. “Any questioning of administrative policy must be student-led,” he says. “And it shouldn’t be combative. Student editors need to show administrators how they can be responsible journalists.” It’s good advice, and he’ll keep working to promote the campaign in the name of student rights.
What can I do about it, anyway?
Get involved. And get the kids involved. There are many ways to get into it, and if yours is a state that has already adopted legislation protecting student expression, awesome. Talk about it. Share it on social media. Put it on the radar of the people, not just journalism students and advisers. New Voices is gaining momentum and that’s because it’s important. We support New Voices, and we hope you do, too.