Editorial: Allow students to practice rights, responsibilities of free press

By The Herald Editorial Board

Experience has always been a key part of learning.

It’s why chemistry students fire up Bunsen burners, student drivers get behind the wheel, basketball players practice passing and dribbling, and why student journalists publish school newspapers, whether they’re in print or online.

But for nearly 30 years, the practice of the most important standards and skills that student journalists must learn have been surrendered to the whim of school administrators.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, determined that administrators for secondary schools and school districts were not violating the First Amendment rights of students when they censored or punished students for the content of school publications or required a pre-publication review of student newspapers and other media.

That pre-publication review and the censorship of student publications that results deprives students of the practical experience gained in applying standards of accuracy and fairness and in recognizing potential problems with libel and slander. It’s like asking the school principal to take over a chemistry experiment out of fear a student might get burned.

Fortunately, state lawmakers of both parties again are introducing legislation, Senate Bill 5064, that would restore First Amendment rights to students who have had to check them at the door of the schoolhouse.

The bill, which had a public hearing last week before a Senate education committee, would expand free speech protections to public high schools as well as colleges and universities; would exclude mandatory prior review of any media produced by higher education students; and would prohibit the discipline or firing of student media advisers for failing to suppress student media.

In the interest of protecting school officials, the legislation also would exempt school officials from civil or criminal liability that might result from school-sponsored media.

Student editors would be responsible for determining the content of news, opinion, features and advertising, just as they are at the professional level. The legislation doesn’t authorize speech that is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an invasion of privacy or incites violence or other dangerous acts. The expectation is that an adviser will guide students as to their responsibilities to avoid publication of unprotected speech.

About a dozen states have such laws on the books.

There is concern that student journalists won’t have a full understanding or appreciation for the harm that can result from instances of libel. But school officials must know that they have far more to worry on that count when it comes to their students’ use of social networks such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

On a school publication, the students at least are receiving guidance from a trained adviser and fellow student journalists on the danger to others and themselves that can result from unprotected speech.

Some administrators will insist that their censorship is limited to issues of libel and student safety. But past experience shows that some officials have looked to expand the use of their red pen to exclude stories that they believed were controversial, biased or just poorly researched or written.

Daniel Reimold, an associate professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, talked with Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte for a 2013 commentary on the Poynter Institute’s website.

“If the administration can stop you from publishing because, in their subjective judgment, a piece is inadequately researched, biased or it takes a stand on a controversial political issue, then you’re talking about dumbing down journalism to Dick and Jane level,” LoMonte told Reimold. “You’re talking about student journalism that’s going to have to meet Sesame Street standards.”

And after 30 years of Hazelwood’s “protections,” Reimold and LoMonte said, there’s a risk that high school students are entering college timid and unaware of the power of journalism and freedom of speech.

As journalists and media outlets work to rebuild the vitality of the Fourth Estate and the public’s trust in journalism — particularly during a presidential administration that threatens to kick the watchdog at every opportunity — we will need journalism students who are schooled in their rights and their responsibilities and have already worked to develop the muscles to use them.

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