Opinion
Law & Courts Commentary

Don’t Silence Young Journalists

By Frank D. Lomonte — February 17, 2015 6 min read

In Illinois, a student editor’s plan to engage teens in the local school board election by hosting an online candidate forum on the website of the student newspaper is scuttled when her superintendent cancels the forum, explaining: “Too much could go wrong.”

In New Jersey, a student editor is forbidden from publishing a story about multiple employee grievances filed against her district’s superintendent, a fact publicly aired at a school board meeting covered only by high school reporters. The principal tells the editor that “personnel issues” are categorically off-limits for student publications.

In Wisconsin, a student editor is punished for a searingly candid magazine article interviewing survivors of sexual assault. It’s an article hailed by experts in the field as sensitively done journalism of professional caliber, but which her superintendent considers “inappropriate” for teen readers.

These students share two qualities with Gillian McGoldrick, who has suffered withering attacks—up to and including a threat of criminal charges—from a school board bent on silencing her editorial crusade against her Pennsylvania high school’s racially offensive mascot.

Related: “My High School Mascot Is Offensive,” (2015)

These student journalists are all victims of a pervasive mentality elevating school image control over educational quality. And they’re all women.

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Censorship has always been with us. The Student Press Law Center was established in response to a groundbreaking study, “Captive Voices,” which concluded 40 years ago that journalism students and teachers were being driven from the newsroom by administrative censorship—"the fundamental cause of the triviality, innocuousness, and uniformity that characterize the high school press.”

But in recent years, K-12 school administrators have become unapologetically heavy-handed in retaliating for speech that may provoke controversy or reflect unfavorably on the school’s image. Disproportionately, because student journalism is increasingly a female-dominated activity, those bearing the impact are young women—women like Kylie Sposato of Pemberton Township, N.J. When Ms. Sposato tried to publish a column decrying lax enforcement of her high school’s anti-smoking policies, her principal vetoed the article, removed a journalism teacher with 20 years of professional newspaper experience, canceled the news-writing class, and ordered the students not to write about being censored.

When schools are challenged over the misuse of censorship authority, they invariably fall back on the same tired rationalization: The law allows it.

With narrow exceptions, that’s probably true. In a 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court divested students of meaningful First Amendment protection when they use a school-subsidized outlet to convey a message.

But “it’s legal” is not a justification. Schools hold students and teachers to a standard of optimal behavior, not minimally legally compliant behavior. Just ask the teachers who’ve been fired for griping about their supervisors or sharing racy photos on Facebook. “Poor judgment” is regularly regarded as a firing offense, except when you’re a principal, and the “judgment” involves your students’ rights.

Schools do not serve lunches with an eyedropper to make sure that no student receives one calorie more than the minimum to stave off starvation. Yet many apportion free-expression rights in exactly that way, enforcing policies cribbed straight from Justice Byron White’s Hazelwood opinion, which sets the floor for the least protection the law allows. State school boards’ associations even publish Hazelwood-based “model” policies, as if “barely legal” were an ideal to aspire to.

The public is entitled to expect schools to aim for a standard higher than “the worst thing we can do to kids and get away with it.” Federal law allows employers to pay a $7.25 per hour minimum wage, but we would not consider $290 a week to be “model” compensation for teachers. We would regard it, accurately, as “one penny away from unlawful.”

How schools treat their young journalists matters because a news-literate public matters."

Debating whether censoring the discussion of controversial subjects is legal distracts from the question that really matters: whether it is educationally responsible.

During 2013, the 25th anniversary of the Hazelwood ruling, the nation’s largest organizations of professional journalists, college journalism educators, and high school journalism advisers adopted resolutions condemning reliance on the Hazelwood standard to suppress the discussion of issues of public concern. An August 2013 declaration from the Society of Professional Journalists explains that “it is well-documented the Hazelwood censorship clause impedes an educator’s ability to adequately instruct and train students in professional journalistic values and practices, including the right to question authority and investigate performances of governance.”

It’s tempting to say that principals and superintendents shouldn’t be second-guessed because they have demanding jobs. But it is always “easier” for government officials to ignore individual rights. It would be “easier” to solve crimes if suspects could be beaten until they confessed. Respecting constitutional values means doing things the hard way because it is also the right way.

It can be tempting, too, to trivialize “high school journalism” as unworthy of adults’ concern. But we wouldn’t mistreat and miseducate students in geometry class and shrug it off as “just a bunch of high school math.”

How schools treat their young journalists matters because a news-literate public matters. The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that news readership had fallen to historic lows, with two-thirds of Americans 34 and younger reporting they read no daily newspaper, about half the rate of their parents. Building healthy news-consumption habits must begin in schools, starting with news that’s relevant and accessible to students’ lives.

It matters because students are the “embedded journalists” on which the entire community depends for reliable information about schools’ shortcomings. Image-obsessed schools are making meaningful news coverage more difficult than ever for the dwindling ranks of newsroom professionals. In a survey of 190 journalists, released in March by the Education Writers Association, 71 percent said they’d been blocked by media-relations officers from interviewing school employees.

It matters because journalism, alone among school activities, teaches the five competencies that, according to a 2010 survey of 450 executives by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, employers value most in new hires: ability to learn new skills, critical thinking and problem-solving, teamwork, interpersonal-communication skills, and “ability to analyze and synthesize information.” This blueprint for a 21st-century-ready workforce reads like the syllabus for Journalism 101.

It matters more today than ever, because the precarious future of journalism depends on the leadership of the strong, opinionated young women whose voices schools are most determined to silence.

In September, Harvard’s Nieman Foundation released “Where Are the Women?”—a dismal study of gender diversity in media—which reported that women represent just 35 percent of newspaper supervisors, 31 percent of TV news directors, and 23 percent of radio news directors. The report, coincidentally, followed the replacement of top female executives at The New York Times (executive editor Jill Abramson) and The Washington Post (publisher Katharine Weymouth) by men, giving the issue a sense of national urgency.

Schools can’t be solely faulted for a complex societal problem with many causes, but one of the most avoidable contributing factors undoubtedly is this one: Year after year, the female student in every high school who has been identified as having the greatest potential as a business leader, the female student most adept at motivating employees, managing a budget, meeting deadlines, and handling customer complaints is told by her administration that she is a troublemaker who should keep her worthless opinions to herself.

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Don’t Silence Young (Female) Journalists

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