Law & Courts

Legislative Measures Seek to Protect Student Press

By Madeline Will — June 06, 2017 7 min read
Journalism adviser Peter Riegelman, left, confers with student Ambyr Wagner during an editing session for The Mercury student newspaper at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vt. A new law in that state grants free-speech and free-press protections to both student journalists and their advisers.

When 17-year-old Robbie Maher stood in front of the Vermont House judiciary committee this spring to make his case for student-press freedoms, he credited his high school journalism adviser for his ability to report on issues that matter.

“It all starts at the top with the Mercury [student newspaper] adviser, Peter Riegelman,” said Robbie, a student at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vt. “Mr. Riegelman ... learned the ins and outs, do’s and don’ts, of journalism. As our adviser, he has passed this knowledge down to each and every BFA journalism student.”

The bill Robbie was testifying for grants free-speech and free-press protections for student journalists at public K-12 schools and state colleges and universities. It also protects media advisers from being dismissed, suspended, reassigned, or otherwise disciplined for protecting their students’ journalism. The bill is among more than a dozen such efforts across the country seeking to expand free-press protections to both student journalists and their teachers—and meeting with varying degrees of success.

The Vermont measure was signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

But the day before, 2,600 miles away, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, vetoed an equivalent bill. In his response to the state legislature, Ducey wrote that while he supports free speech and a free press, he worries that “this bill could create unintended consequences, especially on high school campuses where adult supervision and mentoring is most important.”

The New Voices movement, led by the Washington-based nonprofit Student Press Law Center, started with a law passed in North Dakota in 2015. Last year, such laws were victorious in Illinois and Maryland but failed in a handful of other states, including Michigan and Missouri.

In addition to the newly signed law in Vermont, legislation has passed this year in Nevada, and bills are moving through the legislatures in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said bills are also on the runway in New York and Wisconsin, and once again in Michigan, Missouri, Washington, Texas and Indiana for next year’s legislative sessions.

Journalism guides, a stylebook, and previous issues of The Mercury serve as references for the student reporters and editors working at the paper.

While there are small differences between states, New Voices bills are mostly based on model legislation from the Student Press Law Center.

“The argument for opponents gets weaker and weaker every time a state moves into the New Voices column,” LoMonte said. “Once half of America is governed by this standard, you can’t call it radical or extreme or experimental anymore.”

While only 11 states have student press-freedom laws, LoMonte estimates that one-third of high school students have New Voices protections, thanks to the large populations of states like California.

Empowering Students

In some states, the bills have garnered opposition from administrator groups, school lobbyists, or state school boards, who fear that the legislation could lead to unchecked, irresponsible student journalism.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals hasn’t gotten involved yet, but NASSP President Jayne Ellspermann said the organization has been monitoring the bills and has some hesitation about them.

“As school leaders, we want to empower our students and support our teachers,” she said. “To make the assumption that there has to be laws created that [assume] that we would stand in the way of that—I think that takes away from the relationship and the culture that principals really work hard at building at the school level.”

Her concern, she said, is that a law could create a situation in which the principal is restricted from engaging in a “responsible dialogue” with the student newspaper, and that could “take away from the instructional empowerment.”

New Voices legislation does not protect student journalism that is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, or causes a substantial disruption of the school’s operations. Most states’ bills allow school districts to draft policies that prohibit speech that is lewd or obscene.

Melanie Allen, the president of the Arizona Interscholastic Press Association, said advisers are certified teachers who take seriously the responsibility of teaching students the importance of sound journalism.

The governor’s statement when vetoing the bill “almost makes it sound like high school newspapers are very loosely supervised; that is not the case at all,” she said. “Our job as advisers—whether it be yearbook advisers, newspaper advisers, or with any [school-sponsored] media—is that we teach our students how to objectively and fairly provide the news.”

New Voices legislation seeks to reverse the landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which ruled that educators usually do not violate the First Amendment when they exercise control over student speech in school-sponsored activities, such as a school newspaper.

Since then, many high schools across the country have implemented the practice of prior review, in which a school administrator, often the principal, can review students’ work before publication.

“That is not an empowering professional environment for a teacher to be in,” said Sarah Nichols, the president of the Journalism Education Association.

“The journalism teacher has worked to create a prepared staff with a lot of good training and preparation,” she continued, “but it doesn’t matter because someone else is going to be in control, other than the student.”

The NASSP’s Ellspermann said the prior-review practice doesn’t have to be heavy-handed, but reviewing students’ work before publication is part of the instructional process. She said that review can come from an administrator, the adviser, other faculty members, or even a panel of students—but it should align with the review process put in place for anything else published by the school.

“We have to be careful not to overmonitor student work just because they’re students,” she said.

Battling Censorship

But the concern for many student-journalism advocates is that a principal will not allow a story to be published if it reflects poorly on the school. And once a controversial story has been published, there is fear of administrative retaliation against student-media advisers.

While teachers have been fired or have had their advising duties instantly removed, Nichols said that most of the time, the reprisals are more subtle.

Administrators might cut the school newspaper’s budget, change the adviser’s class schedule, ask him or her to suddenly share a classroom, or “add so many responsibilities to a teacher’s plate that, eventually, the teacher caves” and quits as adviser, Nichols said.

That subtlety is hard to document, she said, and while New Voices legislation might not explicitly protect against that, “it demonstrates support for the teacher, it emphasizes good teaching, and it makes it much harder for the administrator to take some kinds of action.”

Having these laws on the books also boosts student journalists’ confidence, advocates say.

“In a lot of states, the argument is not that we have individual horror stories that need to be prevented, but that students are prone to censor themselves when they know they have no rights,” said LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center.

“Students will choose not to write about issues of substance because they’ve been made aware their advisers’ job is precarious,” he said. “I get that question all the time: Students will ask me, ‘Can you assure me that if I pursue this story, my adviser will not be fired?’ And in most of America, I cannot give them that assurance.”

In Vermont, at least, student-media advisers will be protected under the new law, which went into effect immediately. That’s a relief for Riegelman, the student-newspaper adviser at Bellows Free Academy. He said that if there was ever prior review at his school, he would quit his advising duties.

“That is unconscionable if you ask me,” he said. Administrators “don’t want us to talk about things that aren’t rainbows and butterflies and puppies, but that’s our job. That’s the job of the kids.”

And the Mercury student newspaper has not shied away from reporting on tough issues: Last year, Robbie reported that school administrators were receiving pay raises while cutting school programs.

Robbie, who wants to study journalism in college, said he hopes the law allows students in the state to feel more confident when reporting on controversial issues.

“In my opinion, if it’s controversial, and it’s something that most people don’t want to hear,” he said, “then it’s something that should be covered.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Flurry of Bills Seeks to Protect Student Journalists, Advisers


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