Are Student Journalists Unfairly Censored?


Addison Wallace

States that have passed the New Voices bill.

There have been many instances of censorship in journalism in public schools around the world. This has lead to a debate about whether First Amendment rights are being taken away from students who are trying to write about topics they think are important. The First Amendment rights follow all students through the doors of their school, so why is this such a big problem? Many schools don’t want sensitive topics to be published for everybody to read, and since administrators have the right, they censor the articles from being published. Historical events have set a standard for what can and can’t be censored in schools.

In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam war and honor the soldiers who had been killed in action. The school, Warren Harding Junior High, called her to the principal’s office and told her she was suspended for violating a district ban on armbands. Tinker’s brother and friends then wore armbands for the rest of the week in protest of her suspension and were also suspended. At a school board meeting a few days later, the subject was brought up which then lead to a 5-4 decision to maintain the ban. This lead to the dispute going to court. After multiple appeals, the students finally won with a 7-2 majority vote and were allowed to go back to school. The argument was that students don’t shed their rights to freedom of speech or expression at the doors of the school. Today the standard is that a student’s speech cannot be censored unless it disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others according to the Constitution Daily.

The second event which changed the standard of censorship is the Hazelwood vs Kuhlmeier debate. In 1983, the staff at Hazelwood East High School decided not to print two student written articles because they were about teen pregnancy. The staff felt that the articles were objectionable for multiple reasons which lead them to remove the articles without notifying the authors. The two students, plus the student editor of the paper, then decided to pursue the case in court saying the administration had no right to remove the articles without telling them. Some people now argue that this decision has left student journalists more vulnerable to censorship and to combat that, multiple governments have passed laws to protect student journalists’ rights. In 2016, Illinois passed The Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, which protects students from the same consequences of Hazelwood.

This leads to today’s events, where a group called New Voices joined forces across the nation to protect young journalists who wish to “gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern,” according to the New Voices website. New Voices works with advocates in law, education, journalism and civics to achieve their goal of passing a bill that will restore the Tinker standard for student expression in high schools and colleges across America. Currently, 14 states have passed the New Voices legislation, 9 states have introduced the bill to the legislature, and the other 27 are still waiting for somebody to create a campaign for the bill to be introduced.

The New Voices bill has three parts: restoring high school standards, protecting public college students, and extending the rights to private colleges. The first part of the bill will restore the Tinker standard to public high schools; 13 states have passed this section. The second part will protect colleges from court interpretations that apply the Hazelwood standard to most adult students; 5 states have passed this. The last part will extend the rights of public college students to students at private colleges; so far only California has passed this, and North Dakota is close.

Colt Roundup reached out, through Instagram, to current NYU student, Max Gordon, who experienced censorship in his high school. Gordon was the Editor in Chief of Herriman High School’s newspaper, The Telegraph, when he helped publish another student’s article about a teacher who was fired and under investigation. The administration took the article down without explanation. In protest, the students published it on a website they created under a similar name, The Telegram. Gordon believes, “if the article is factually correct the school should have a clear reason why they believe the story should be censored.” He also gave advice to students who have been censored saying they should “Triple check your facts and make sure there isn’t… a reason for censorship… and reach out to the Student Press Law Center for help.” Herriman’s journalism staff went to the SPLC for help fighting their school. Gordon’s final piece of advice was “Reach out to local media, create your own website, and do whatever it takes to get your story out there. The worst thing you can do is give up and let the school get away with censoring a story.”

Colt Roundup also interviewed former Cottonwood journalism student Mazana Boerboom. Boerboom is freshman at University of Montana, and she said, “Since I graduated and went to college for journalism I’ve found there’s a lot more freedom and a lot less censoring in every aspect and I’ve learned so much more because of it.” She also thinks that, in high school journalism, it’s hard to find a balance between being truth seekers and following the boundaries put up by the school.

The New Voices website allows story submissions from students all over the nation for use as an argument for passing the bill. They strongly urge students in states who haven’t passed the bill to aid them in setting more standards of free speech for journalism students.