“New Voices Act” Would Protect Students’ First Amendment Rights
Submitted to FOCUS by Bailey Cichon – The first amendment protects an American’s right to freedom of the press from censorship, but if you are a student journalist writing for a school newspaper, those “God given rights” outlined in the constitution are not guaranteed.
Under the Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier made in 1988, student media not designated as a public forum for student expression can be censored by school officials with reasonable educational reasoning. The Hazelwood ruling gives administration the power to take away a student’s constitutional rights.
How is it that adults in the media are protected, yet students are not?
Censorship is difficult to define simply because it takes many forms. In terms of student media, censorship may include asking a student to soften up the angle on an article, not permitting an article to be printed, not allowing students to write on certain “hot topics,” or not allowing a paper to be printed. To put it simply, the root of censorship comes from a lack of trust between the school and the student.
During the 2016-2017 school year, members of the Marshfield High School Journalism Club were instructed not to express their opinions in student media.
Due to the tone of the quotes and angle, an article about MHS’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) had to be rewritten multiple times.
The author of that article, Aria Rens, said, “I was asked to rewrite the article as administrators perceived it as too negative in terms of how MHS was portrayed… The administration’s stance on the article came mostly from its discussion concerning how MHS students in general reacted to the club.”
Rens’ article included quotes from members of the GSA who talked about their experiences being involved in a club that was openly put down by other students.
“The original article, in my opinion, did not exaggerate these struggles,” said Rens.
While most would see this article as narrating a valuable story of courageous teens persevering in the face of harassment, school administration saw it as framing MHS in a bad light.
“Because the article dealt with a more heated topic, I am impressed that it was approved by administration at all following revision,” added Rens. “However, prior to being denied by school administration, [the original article] had been approved by an editor, club advisor, and several members of the GSA itself had read the article and said that it represented the club well.”
This is a prime example of censorship in our schools. Sadly, this is a common theme found across the country. I attended a journalism workshop at the University of Iowa last summer and almost every student in my publication leadership workshop had experienced something similar.
All too often, schools use the student newspaper as a PR tool to amplify stories of student achievement. This becomes a problem when schools prevent students from sharing stories and opinions on topics that would actually challenge the students to grow as journalists.
The New Voices Act would make all the difference for young journalists such as Rens who are trying to find their voice in the community. Every time a student journalist is censored, the concerns of the younger generation are being invalidated. And why? Because a teenage girl put in time to listen to people being affected by a problem and then highlighted the problem to address it?
A student journalist provides a viewpoint from a generation that is underrepresented in the media, which makes student publications even more valuable. By censoring our student journalists, we are teaching them to stay away from stories that could make a difference just because they cover a “heated topic”. Schools should be teaching their students to be fearless in the pursuit of the truth. Censorship in schools, however, undermines students from reaching their full potential as journalists.
In December 2016, a private donor offered to donate printed copies of the MHS Journalism Club’s work to be distributed amongst students. The club had been previously publishing articles solely online and were having a hard time getting students to read their work. The donor outlined a plan where they would pay for printing costs with advertisements from community businesses.
After the club had finished the print edition, they had it reviewed by members of administration to be approved for printing. The print edition was not allowed to go into print due to an “anti-ad policy”.
I could cite the school board policy that permits ads in school sponsored publications but instead, I will quote what the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Washington D.C. writes about advertising in student publications. “Advertising is constitutionally protected expression. Student media may accept advertising. Acceptance or rejection of advertising is within the purview of the publication staff, which may accept any ads except those for products or services that are illegal for all students.”
Yet again, censorship has showed up in the Marshfield community.
In Hazelwood Schools vs. Kuhlmeier, articles about divorce and teen pregnancy were not allowed to go to print. The principal had found interviews from students who had experienced divorce and teen pregnancy to be inappropriate for a high school newspaper.
Before the Supreme Court decision Hazelwood Schools vs. Kuhlmeier, Des Moines vs. Tinker had given students the right to student expression so long as it didn’t disrupt the school environment.
After Hazelwood, student expression took a step backwards and was permitted to be censored. The Hazelwood decision left journalism programs across the country vulnerable to not only censorship but retaliation for reporting news truthfully.
Now students are getting another chance to beat censorship. The New Voices Act would give students the right of freedom of expression so long as it is not libelous, slanderous, violating state law, or causing significant disruption to the orderly operation of the school. The law would also protect teachers and all school officials against penalties for a student’s exercise of freedom of speech.
Student media is a chance for students to explore a career path and learn the craft of journalism. Independence is the key to allowing a student journalist to learn and preventing them from writing on important topics stunts their growth as a journalist.
With the explosion of digital media, it is more important to give students a chance to practice using their voices truthfully and responsibly under the guidance of an adviser. When a student publishes their own voice, they are taking ownership for their opinions; this is the only way for students to practice responsibility and ethical decision-making.
The New Voices Act has been passed in twelve states, including Illinois and Iowa. It is important that Wisconsin follows the trend; it would be a step in the direction of freedom of expression across the country and would usher in a new era of truthful media.
Please note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. If you would like to submit an opinion piece, please e-mail .