After listening to high school journalists last week, I am simultaneously hopeful and worried about the future of the First Amendment in America.
The venue was the National High School Journalism Convention in Washington, D.C., an annual event sponsored by the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association.
On the up side, encountering so many bright, committed and insightful young journalists from high schools across the country inspires hope. But on the downside, hearing their stories of censorship and control by school officials is cause for worry, if not despair.
It was especially disturbing to hear students describe how school administrators misuse their power of “prior review” to keep any hint of controversy out of the school paper. Not surprisingly, what is considered off-limits varies from region to region.
In one community, for example, school officials ban coverage of student religious clubs while permitting coverage of all other student clubs. But in a very different community, administrators instruct students not to report on lesbian, gay, bi and transgender issues because a few parents once complained about a profile of a gay student in the school paper.
Under current law, school officials may review what goes into school publications (though they aren’t required by any law to do so). But they may not turn “prior review” into “prior restraint” with overly broad and vague restrictions on what student reporters may cover.
Unfortunately, many public school administrators are either unfamiliar with the First Amendment — or simply ignore it.
The stories of school censorship I heard at the convention are consistent with trends I have seen around the country. A growing number of public schools restrict school newspapers (or shut them down entirely) and, in other ways, limit student political and religious speech.
“It is both strange and troubling that in the “land of the free” so many school officials are afraid of freedom.
Here’s the irony: Schools that give students meaningful opportunities to exercise their First Amendment freedoms are safer, more successful learning environments than schools that treat students like prison inmates.
One such school is Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, located in rural Appalachia where students learn about democracy and freedom by actually practicing democracy and freedom. This means, for example, Federal Hocking students serve on all school committees, participating in everything from revising the student handbook to hiring faculty. Students are also given full responsibility for all student events and various school programs. And a student serves on the local school board.
Administrators at Federal Hocking understand that when school officials choose between safety and freedom, they make a false and dangerous choice. Silencing student voice, installing metal detectors and other efforts to make schools “safe” are, at best, stopgap measures that paper over the root causes of student alienation and frustration — and send dissent underground.
If we are serious about creating better schools, places with fewer discipline problems and higher academic achievement, then students must have a meaningful voice in shaping the life of the school.
My advice to the student journalists at the conference is the same advice I would give to any student attending a public high school that ignores or censors student speech:
If your school newspaper is subject to prior review, start a campaign to end it. Prior review stifles freedom of the press and undermines the work of student journalists.
If your school district doesn’t protect First Amendment freedoms, petition the administration and the school board, organize rallies and speak out for policies that uphold religious liberty, freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition. Exercise your rights to make the case for freedom.
If students aren’t involved in decision-making at your school, seek student representation on school committees and the school board to ensure students are involved in decisions concerning school policies, culture and governance.
Go home, speak out, and stand up for freedom. Remind your administrators and school board members that a country committed to democracy and freedom needs schools committed to democracy and freedom.
In a free society that would remain free, schools must be our laboratories of freedom.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C.. His email address is email@example.com.