We’re Strangling High School Free Speech, Press

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

WASHINGTON — As high school students head back to school this month, far fewer have a chance to participate in real student journalism owing to reduced or eliminated programs, fewer trained professional advisers and quite possibly antagonistic school administrators.

Journalism educators gathered here Aug. 9 to talk about high school journalism, 20 years after the first Scholastic Journalism Summit. They heard that many of those same problems considered two decades ago remain — and the more recent news is even more chilling.

The combination of school abandonment of support for free press and speech and court decisions in the last two decades is “chipping away at fundamental freedoms” in a trend “for which I see no end in sight,” warned Mark Goodman, who led the Student Press Law Center for much of that time.

Some student cases in point:

  • A federal appeals court recently ruled that New York school officials could suspend an otherwise-exemplary eighth-grader for posting a 2001 online picture message from home on his parents’ computer and sending it to a few of his friends. The court said the drawing threatened the student’s English teacher, but its holding wasn’t based on any finding that the threat was “true.” Rather, it was because school officials made the case that they believed it would disrupt classes.
  • In a serious case with a funny nickname, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” (Morse v. Frederick) the U.S. Supreme Court carved out yet another exception to a hallmark 1969 student-speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Court will permit school authorities to punish student speech that administrators deem to indicate even a smidgen of support for illegal drug use.
  • In Minnesota, an award-winning editor of a student newspaper found his publication censored by a principal because he was going to run a picture of the simulated destruction of a U.S. flag — in a report about a play on the Civil War.
  • Then there was the flap last school year in a northern Indiana school district over a student newspaper column that asked for tolerance and compassion for gays. The junior-senior high school has eliminated the newspaper program and turned yearbook into an after-school club. The newspaper adviser, who successfully deflected a school board attempt to fire her, has left the public system for a private school — where she will not be banned from the journalism program.

We can all agree that realistic threats of violence in school merit realistic responses by authorities. And I have yet to find even strident First Amendment advocates who disagree that student journalists need education, training and adult advice.

But what are we teaching students — our future fellow citizens — about the value of a free press when a well-written, mild-mannered essay is reason for killing off a student publication and removing the adviser?

What are we telling students about the value of free speech when the good ones are reprimanded, suspended, expelled or even face criminal charges for musings that likely would have sent a prior generation to after-school detention, at most?

When we block students from expressing themselves in school, we likely don’t shut off the speech. We drive it underground or into cyberspace.

When we shut down or water down student newspapers, Web sites and yearbooks, we speak loudly about authority at the expense of education.

Again, from Goodman: “Large numbers of students are learning that government does have the power to control the content” of newspapers and speech.

Summit attendees heard some glimmers of positive news.  Innovative programs like the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ High School Journalism initiative offer advice and a Web home (http://www.highschooljournalism.org/) to electronic versions of high school newspapers. A new initiative by the Radio Television News Directors Association will boost student radio and television.

But in an era when too many school officials seem bent on shutting down student expression and the courts seem willing to support them, there’s too little good news for those who don’t see the words “except for students” anywhere in the 45 words of the First Amendment.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected]