Editorial: Rights restored, time to strengthen school papers

Lawmakers have restored free speech rights for student newspapers. Now to restore those programs.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It couldn’t come at a more critical time.

State lawmakers have sent legislation to the governor’s desk that should help strengthen the foundation of journalism where many get their first exposure to it: high school newspapers.

Senate and House have passed SB 5064, which restores the First Amendment rights of students to publish student newspapers — in print and online — without threat of censorship or punishment by school officials. The legislation allows Washington state students to join their peers in 13 other states — and counting — that have addressed a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that school administrators were not violating students’ free speech rights when publications were censored or students or advisers where punished for the content of school publications or pre-publication review was required.

The legislation arrives at a time when journalism is being attacked as “fake news” from the nation’s highest office and when a torrent of social media provides a flood or information but with limited opportunity for students — and adults — to understand how to be responsible consumers of that information.

The bill restores the right to students to determine what will be published — with the guidance of teachers and other adult advisers. Student editors will be responsible for determining the content of news, opinion, features and advertising, just as editors are at the professional level. The legislation doesn’t authorize or excuse 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.

Last year, when the legislation was reintroduced by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, we compared the need for students to learn journalism in this hands-on fashion to the learning they do in a chemistry class. What’s the use of a chemistry lab when a school administrator steps in to take over an experiment at the Bunsen burner for fear a student might burn herself.

This direct learning is as it should be because that is how many journalists begin to learn not only their rights but their responsibilities to accuracy and fairness. The importance of accuracy is best appreciated when students understand there are consequences for others, themselves and the public’s trust when journalistic standards are ignored.

With that right secured for students, it is now up to the state’s 295 school districts to ensure that school journalism programs are strengthened and expanded and that more education is provided for all students in understanding how to develop varied media diets and habits that can discern responsible reporting and filter out actual fake news.

The numbers on the strength of school journalism are mixed, however.

The most recent census by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University, published in 2011, found that while 96 percent of schools offer some opportunity for students to participate in a school-sponsored publication, those opportunities are less frequently available in schools in smaller districts and with larger low-income and minority populations.

And surprisingly — at a time when print publications are trying to make a profitable move to online and mobile publications — only 33 percent of schools offer any online student media. Only about a quarter of schools with print newspapers have an online publication and 8 percent publish exclusively online.

This is a missed opportunity for students to learn the coding and upkeep of online and mobile platforms that they are most likely to use in the future. And it should be a simple matter to offer links to these publications on every school’s website where parents and the community can read them.

More recently than the 2011 survey, there are reports that student newspapers are beginning to get squeezed out of the school day nationwide, the victim of funding shortfalls and the drive to devote more class time to preparing students for standardized tests.

School newspapers and other media, however, should not be viewed as an elective but as a practical application of the language arts skills that students must develop for college and career, regardless of whether journalism is pursued after high school. Student publications offer real world experience that develops vital skills in research and communication.

And we’re learning many of our students have something to say.

Sadly, it took a tragedy in the form of the massacre of 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Florida, high school, for many to realize just how articulate and intelligent many students are, as teens at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others across the country and our own county spoke up and demanded change and action.

We need to make sure those students have a forum.

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