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Another Voice: Legislation is needed to empower student journalists

By Liz Hogrefe

This article can exist because the First Amendment guarantees my right to participate in a free press. But in many public high schools in New York, I couldn’t enjoy those same rights.

Student journalists in New York and 35 other states enjoy no guarantee of their right to participate in a free press. In 1969, the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines declared that neither teachers nor students “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate,” including the right to editorial control over school-sponsored publications.

But in 1988, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier put student journalism in a chokehold, allowing school administrators to censor publications if they have “legitimate pedagogical concerns” about content. That vague clause gave administrators the means to make publications tame PR tools at the expense of truth; they have applied Hazelwood to censor coverage on innumerable topics in New York, from a student struggling with life on the street to investigations of lead in water fountains.

This is where New Voices – a student-led, grassroots, bipartisan movement – comes in. New Voices aims to restore student journalism to the Tinker standard. New York’s New Voices bill, the Student Journalist Free Speech Act, sponsored by Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endicott, and State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, D-Manhattan, returns editorial control of student publications to students.

The bill doesn’t permit a free-for-all – student journalists still have to follow the same code of ethics professionals follow. What it does do is protect our rights: to free speech, to a free press and to engage and participate in our democracy. Fourteen states have passed similar legislation.

Censorship isn’t an American value, and the fact that student journalists are subject to such pervasive restrictions on our First Amendment rights should make people uncomfortable. Even more chilling is the self-censorship Hazelwood has normalized. When student journalists suspect a story won’t make it past administrators, they’ll drop it rather than face censorship.

Student journalists have a right to tell these stories, just as their audiences have a right to read them. When the possibility of including controversial content is taken off the table, journalistic education is stunted and students are disempowered.

We have the opportunity to restore New York’s student journalists’ rights, and to equip them to tell the stories they’re best fit to tell themselves – their own. We have the opportunity to let them tell the stories of their schools and communities, the stories that need to be shared to inform, educate and benefit their audiences.

We implore legislators to pass our bill this session – because if students can’t tell their own stories, who will?

Liz Hogrefe of Painted Post is student advocate for New Voices of New York.

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