How free should student newspapers be?

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

“The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed.” — Thomas Jefferson

School newspapers can be far more than a training ground for future journalists; they can be a training ground for democratic freedom. How better to learn the power of free expression — and the responsibility to exercise it fairly? And where better to give students a meaningful voice in the life of the school?

Unfortunately, a free student press is seen by too many school officials as a risky business. These administrators insist on reviewing all articles prior to publication, and thinking of the final product as a public-relations tool for the school.

But students who are censored and controlled quickly lose interest (and rarely become journalists). And they learn little or nothing about what it means to produce a newspaper that is accurate, fair and free.

Here’s the irony. Students grounded in the ethics of journalism and given freedom to report the news are far more responsible (and creative) than those who labor under prior review and constant censorship. Freedom works.

Harry Proudfoot, faculty adviser for the Westport (Mass.) Villager, says building a free and responsible student press at his school starts with the Villager’s mission statement — “a statement the students decided they needed and developed on their own.” As a result, Proudfoot says that “every student understands that with his or her right to freedom of the press comes the responsibility to use those rights respectfully. And they will tell you that any school can have this type of newspaper if they have the courage to give students ownership of the process.”

Learning about the First Amendment from a textbook isn’t enough. Only by practicing freedom of the press do students confront the challenges of democratic freedom, including the difficult task of balancing a commitment to free expression with a concern for the common good. And only by giving students a chance to do so will we ensure the future of the American experiment in liberty.

For more information on how to live up to the First Amendment in your school, visit the First Amendment Schools project. FAS is a national school-reform initiative, co-sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the First Amendment Center, designed to help all schools model and apply First Amendment principles throughout their communities.

For more information on the role of a free and responsible student press at your school, visit the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC provides free legal advice and information as well as low-cost educational materials for student journalists on a wide variety of legal topics.

Sam Chaltain coordinates the First Amendment Schools program for the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

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