Student journalists have to get their work past administrative censors. The Legislature should hand the editing pen back to the students.
HIGH school student journalists, if they’re doing their work well, enjoy all the responsibilities and opportunities of professional reporters — except their work can be censored by school administrators.
In Washington schools, administrators retain the right to censor content of student-run newspapers, a position that is allowed under a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Ten other states have rolled back that power, granting more autonomy to the students.
The Washington Legislature should join them this year and pass the editing pen back to student journalists.
A bill championed by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, would eliminate “prior review” of student papers by administrators in K-12 and higher education. The shift would not protect all stories, including those containing libel or incitement of violence or violations of school policy.
But it would empower student journalists to dive more deeply in journalism at this critical moment in media literacy. Now more than ever the nation needs a vigorous press and smart, civically engaged young citizens.
Last November, the Puyallup High Viking Vanguard staff decided to “take the temperature” of the school after having three principals in three years. In an impressive survey of 250 students and 31 staff, the Vanguard documented frustration about a new attendance policy, concern over students leaving the closed campus for lunch and some teacher discontent.
But student editor Jaxon Owens, testifying in Olympia in favor of the student journalist protection bill, said the staff pulled punches. “Because we had to get approval from the very person who we were evaluating, we toned down those stories,” he said.
His testimony was followed by student journalists, one after another, talking about the transformative power of journalism. “Censored news is fake news,” said Mariah Valles, editor of the Auburn High yearbook.
“Protecting student journalists’ rights to free speech will not only help student journalists, it will help the student body. They deserve the right to know what’s going on in their school,” said Hewan Mengistu, an editor at Seattle’s Cleveland High.
Last year, the Legislature rejected a similar bill after hearing objections from principals, who view control of content more as a curriculum issue than a free-speech issue. That’s a valid concern, but the best education is rooted in critical thinking and forceful writing — the definition of good journalism.
There is also concern about the potential liability of protecting student expression. In 2010, four students sued Puyallup School District after being included in a high school newspaper story that quoted them talking about their sex lives. They lost the federal suit, but the case rattled some school administrators.
That type of case is extraordinarily rare. Mike Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center said there is not a single published court decision in the nation holding schools liable for the content of student publications, while there are more than 100 cases over injuries in high school football; lawsuits involving injured cheerleaders are also common.
“I always tell school officials if they want to limit their financial liability, they need to get rid of football and cheerleading and leave their student media alone,” Hiestand said.
Let the students write. The country needs them.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 5, 2017 was corrected Feb. 6, 2017. A previous version of this story misspelled Mike Hiestand’s last name.