7 Signs That Your School Newspaper Risks Censorship

By Catherine Gewertz — October 17, 2019 2 min read
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How strong is the student newspaper at your high school? Are its journalists expected to serve only as publicists? Are they given free rein to explore controversies?

A report released Thursday identifies “warning signs” that student newspapers could be in danger of censorship. It focuses on college newspapers, but it could also be helpful to K-12 educators as they teach students their rights as journalists.

The study by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that works to safeguard students’ rights on college campuses, outlines seven signs of tampering with student-press freedom. You can dive into the report to read the examples from college campuses.

  • Defunding and derecognition. Student newspapers need space and resources to operate. Has your student media outlet been threatened, overtly or subtly, that it could lose these things if it publishes controversial stories?
  • Investigations. Administrators don’t even have to investigate a story in the works (or already published). They can just threaten to investigate, and that can have a chilling effect on student journalists’ work.
  • Theft and destruction. Have administrators or student groups stolen stacks of your school’s newspapers in an attempt to keep a story from getting out?
  • Censorship demands. It’s not unheard of for principals or college administrators to simply demand that students steer clear of topics that might make their schools look bad, or stop short of publishing stories on controversial topics.
  • Prior review. Do administrators at your school insist on reviewing your student newspaper’s content before it’s published? And do they have the right to remove stories from the paper before publication? The first is known as “prior review,” and the second is “prior restraint.” The law frowns on both. FIRE’s report notes that “the Supreme Court of the United States has observed that the ‘chief purpose’ of the First Amendment is to prevent prior restraint.”
  • Pressure on advisers. Schools with strong commitments to free speech make it clear that their administrators may not “control, chill or punish student media content” or retaliate against teachers who support student journalists in doing their work.
  • Media relations policies. This is one that’s probably less common on high school campuses. In colleges, the FIRE report says, student journalists are sometimes prohibited from interviewing faculty members.

FIRE focuses its work on college campuses—it’s become best known for fighting colleges’ decisions to ban controversial speakers from campus. But student journalists in the K-12 world have a longstanding ally in the Student Press Law Center. Its staff of attorneys advise both high school and college journalists.

Frank LoMonte, who was the Student Press Law Center’s executive director in 2017, told The Washington Post then that the center serves as “the public defenders for student journalists.” The Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, reported that the center responds to every request and never charges a fee.

The SPLC has a hotline student journalists can call for urgent legal representation. Its website has also compiled a wide range of resources to support public school students in asserting their rights as journalists, from summaries of case law to guidance about handling theft of their school newspapers.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.