Why we need a strong student press

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The student press in America doesn’t get much press. But it’s an important part of educating our kids, and it’s in trouble and getting weaker.

Legislative proposals in Washington state and Kansas regarding student journalism are at cross-purposes: The former would prevent school officials from censoring college and high school publications, while the latter would institutionalize outside “advisory” editorial review at the high school level.

An elemental issue in evaluating both proposals is whether or not students even have free-press rights in the same sense as non-student journalists do. Advocates for journalism education and unfettered student free expression see student press freedom as a natural extension of First Amendment freedoms for all. Opponents find great comfort in a string of court decisions that parse the extent of student free-speech and -press freedoms by increasingly deferring to school administrators’ concerns about safety, security — and sometimes even propriety.

The Washington state legislation, H.B. 1307, would preclude principals and other school authorities, at both the prep and collegiate levels, from exercising prior restraint except in cases of libel, privacy issues and material likely to incite violence. It also would protect journalism advisers from being fired because of dustups over the content of a student publication. California has similar laws that broadly protect student expression, and five other states — Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Massachusetts — provide specific scholastic journalism protection.

In Kansas, a bill by State Rep. Don Myers, R-Derby, would skirt existing law by creating a content-review committee for student publications including a school-board member, a parent from within the district and the school superintendent or designee. The sponsors note the committee would merely advise. Opponents say that as a practical matter, committee review of every article is not practical when producing a publication on deadline — censorship by bureaucracy, if not reality. Interestingly, it does not provide for the committee to include a student journalist, adviser or other person with any journalism experience.

The debate in statehouses and elsewhere ought to be about providing increased opportunities for education, information — and perhaps even a bit of inspiration — to student journalists, rather than getting bogged down in already-futile exchanges over regulation.

Students will express themselves in some fashion regardless of what parents, lawmakers, school officials or others decide. The focus should be on providing funds and staff to ensure student journalism is made an integral, effective part of the educational experience.

The alternative won't guarantee either control or sensibility. More likely it will marginalize student voices and send them increasingly to unregulated and unsupervised communication methods — the Web and social-networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube with their ever-growing number of unregulated imitators and innovators.

Student journalists may well want to report on subjects like AIDS or pregnancy or drugs, or take note of students charged with crimes, or report on a host of other issues that make some adults uncomfortable. Students will talk about those subjects and more regardless of whether or not their student media does.

Student journalism both offers a training ground to those who would pursue the profession and an initial experience to all young people, who will be dealing with news media in various forms for the rest of their lives. Student media can and should provide opportunities for vigorous debate on issues and for learning responsibility while getting good advice from experienced and educated professionals.

Will adults empowered with prior restraint ultimately be more responsible than students in exercising control rooted in good journalistic considerations? Will they be concerned more about image than substance, ego than newsworthiness, and be more about avoiding testy parental telephone calls rather than providing needed, if controversial, information?

Of course, there’s also the issue of how much student press still exists to protect. At many schools in many states, once-vigorous journalism programs are going away or gone, as emphasis has swung to math-science curricula at the expense of such “fringe” activities as a student newspaper and yearbook, along with music and art programs. Staffing standards that once required journalism degrees have been diluted in state after state, confirms Linda Puntney, executive director of the Journalism Education Association — leading to less-trained (if at all) advisers, often with fewer resources and less frequently published student media.

It would seem a disingenuous argument to hold that increasing control by administrators will imbue scholastic journalism with editorial integrity and responsibility while simultaneously eliminating, watering down or rendering ineffective the very programs and educators who have for years fulfilled just that role.

Far better to consider the benefits of a healthy student press, staffed by young, educated journalists and advised by trained professional educators. Better for schools, better for students and ultimately better for a nation that professes to value a free press.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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