In the spring of 2017, Amy Robertson arrived at Pittsburg High School in Kansas to take on her new role as principal. However, a few months into the semester, her story began falling apart. Just days after her lies came to light, Robertson resigned.
In 2021, English teacher Joseph Canzoneri’s sexual misconduct was exposed, and he was removed from his position at Townsend Harris High School in New York. Just last year, a teacher at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, Calif., was fired because of his racist comments toward Black and Latino students.
What connects these scandals? They were all uncovered by teenagers like me—high school student journalists who did what adults did not by properly investigating the history and credentials of school staff put in positions of power. The job of student journalists is to compile and publish information on issues pertinent to our audience of peers, teachers, administrators, and more. But even though we have proved that we are capable of reporting on wrongdoing and creating change through our stories, journalism classes are under attack, and our journalism teachers are often restricted from doing their jobs fully.
Nationwide, journalism advisers are punished again and again just for supporting their students’ education. At a Los Angeles high school, a principal put seasoned journalism adviser Adriana Chavira on unpaid suspension after, in support of her students’ journalism, she refused to remove the name of an unvaccinated school librarian from the story in a student newspaper. Another school fired their journalism advisers after a student wrote a pro-choice opinion piece, and the advisers allowed it to be published.
Our journalism advisers need the freedom to teach students the full scope of journalism without fear of being limited or losing their jobs. Journalism gives students unique opportunities to learn how to investigate and cover important issues, serving as an irreplaceable method of civic education and engagement. By teaching students how to critically sift through sources and produce high-quality articles, journalism shows students how to determine the credibility of and navigate a variety of sources and complex issues, something that many young people often struggle with. But when journalism advisers have to worry about whether publishing a controversial story might get them fired, it becomes risky to embolden their students to research contentious issues and policies, even when those issues can greatly impact schools or surrounding communities.
While it can be easy to brush student journalists aside, not only does our work help us grow into better-informed adults through the process of investigating relevant issues, but it also serves as an essential source of information for our audience. High school student journalists deserve the same rights as professionals for the same reasons: to uncover wrongdoings and inform the public. Who better to advocate for students’ education and school environments than students themselves?
If schools truly want their students to have the critical-thinking skills needed to advocate for themselves and thrive in a modern world, we must protect the teachers who help develop student voices. Despite the importance of student journalists, our rights have been denied at a federal level. Although the Supreme Court decided that students had First Amendment rights at school in the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines, their 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier classified school-sponsored newspapers as limited classroom publications rather than true public forums. This meant that school officials could review and censor their students’ articles before publication. Thus, the Supreme Court condoned the censorship of student journalism across the nation.
However, at a state level, grassroots movements are campaigning for the rights of student journalists and our teachers through model legislation called New Voices. These bills would protect student journalism advisers from administrator retaliation for refusing to infringe on their students’ free speech. Though New Voices laws have been passed in 16 states, many other states lag behind. So far, New Voices has been introduced for the 2023 legislative session in Missouri, Connecticut, New York, and West Virginia to fight the legacy left by Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.
Despite living just 30 minutes from Hazelwood East High School, where the case began, I’m lucky to write for an uncensored student-run newspaper. Student journalists at my school are encouraged to cover issues that matter to us, even if they are controversial. That means that sometimes my peers, our adviser, and I find ourselves on the receiving end of angry comments from students, administrators, and parents.
But our school newspaper is more than just a way for us to express our ideas; it serves as a safe place where anyone can share their opinion and function as a platform for respectful discourse among students.
Journalism classes and journalism advisers are invaluable to schools. Urging legislators to support New Voices bills is just one of the many ways we can ensure that teachers are not punished for doing their jobs. I encourage education advocates to support these bills and other ways to advance student journalism in our efforts to have a democratized society.