First Amendment Rights for Student Journalists

Often times student journalists are censored for “controversial” stories, whether the topics of the story is truly controversial or not. However, this censorship of student journalists is a gross misjustice of their First Amendment rights.

However, before I get too far into my thoughts on the First Amendment rights for student journalists, here is some background information on two court cases that have played a huge role in student journalist First Amendment rights:

The first major case was the Tinker v. Des Moines case in 1969. Three teenagers wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. However, the school deemed the armbands as unfit, suspended the students because of that. The parents of the students seemed this was unfit and brought it to court. The Supreme Court recognized, in this case, that the First Amendments rights protects expression. The result of the Tinker v. Des Moines case means that principals and school administrators can not censor something because they do not like it. The school has to show substantial proof that there will be disruption.

The second major case is the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case in 1988. The decision of this case completely undoes the rights gained from Tinker. The Supreme Court limits the First Amendment protection for student speech in school sponsored student media. In years since the Hazelwood ruling, it has allowed schools all over the U.S. the right to prior review (allowing school administrators or anyone of authority outside of an editorial staff demanding that they be allowed to read – preview – copy prior to publication and/or distribution) and censorship to school funded student publications. This opened the door for more censorship, which in turn lead students having to censor themselves in order to avoid censorship from the school administrators, principal, etc.

Since 1988, 10 states were successful in enacting laws after the Hazelwood ruling, 23 states tried without success. From 2016-2017, 18 states have efforts to pass a bill to protect student rights. Thus with passing this bill, student journalists would regain their previously restricted First Amendment rights.

My own state, Arizona, currently has a bill that was just recently passed into House (SB 1384) that states “a student journalist may exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored media.” This bill was introduced by Senator Kimberly Yee (R-Phoenix; former student journalist) and would place limitations on what school administrators can censor form student publications. If this bill is passed it would mean that my First Amendment rights would be reinstated in my journalism classroom. It would mean the end of censorship of “controversial” stories.

But why have student journalists’ not been able to have their First Amendment rights? Why has it taken this long to gain them?

Well, to answer the first part: Student journalists were not able to have their First Amendment rights because their journalism class and newspaper (by extension) was school/district funded. The school had the power of prior review, prior restraint (suppression of material that would be published or broadcast, on the grounds that it is libelous or harmful), and ultimately censorship – which is a violation of the student journalists First Amendment part (particularly to part of freedom of speech and freedom of press). But, since the newspaper is funded through the school/district and distributed on school property, they ultimately have the “power” of censorship.

To answer the second part of the question of why it has taken so long on gaining these rights: people fear the power of giving student journalists, and even students in general, of their full First Amendment rights and strip a few at the school gates. Now, I am not saying every single person feels this way, but obviously enough do in order to restrain a students First Amendment rights. When the Columbine shooting happened in 1999, it only reinstated and heightened the fear that people felt in protecting the rights of students. (Sidenote: I included this because in the efforts of passing the bill on protecting a student journalists’ First Amendent rights, there was a dry spell between Arkansas in 1994 and Oregon in 2007.) They thought it would be far easier and ultimately “safer” to vastly restrain a students First Amendment rights than to have be student be able to exercise their rights and understand how they work.

Thus, with the fact of restraining a student journalists’ First Amendment rights, it poses the question of: How can civics be taught at school but then down the hall have the students First Amendment rights restricted down the hall?

By revoking a student journalists First Amendment rights, it does absolutely nothing in helping them to understand their rights they have outside a school or university. Schools and universities should have a Tinker standard (Tinker standard: states that students have the right of free speech unless it disrupts class work or abuses the rights of others) for students because after all, aren’t student journalists’ still deserving of their basic First Amendment rights (freedom of speech and freedom of press)? Don’t student journalists’ deserve the right of uncensored publications so they understand how their rights work?

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