Free Speech for Student Journalists

Protecting the speech of high school journalists
Unsplash, Brad Neatherly

It is about time that we protect the free speech of high school journalists. 

In 2018, Indiana House Bill 1016 intended to ensure student publications could not be censored unless the publication was “libelous, slanderous… violates federal law or creates a clear and present danger to students.” Unfortunately, it failed in the Senate.

Currently, school administrators are free to censor student content they deem a “pedagogical concern,” according to the former executive director of the Indiana Collegiate Press Association, Adam Maksyl. Due to the arbitrary nature of such a provision, it essentially gives administrators the right to censor publications that deal with any topics they disagree with, or that they consider “controversial.”

This stands in contrast with our ideals as a democratic society. We teach our children to be critical and make informed decisions.

As Paul the Apostle wrote, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” 

Giving school administrations the right to censor student publications suggests that students aren’t ready to “prove all things,” or exercise their constitutional right to free speech.

Why? Due to nothing more than their immature frontal cortices, as if the last few years haven’t made it clear that adults aren’t much better. 

If students are old enough to ask hard questions, they are probably old enough to be heard.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Questioning this right inside the gate sends the wrong message outside. 

Supporting free speech for student publications, on the other hand, provides fair ground for the best ideas to thrive, protecting conservative and liberal alike. It is an attack on apathy, promoting student involvement in civil discourse and civic matters of importance. 

Protecting free speech, furthermore, will ensure that the truth is told, no matter how hard it is to hear, so that something can be done about it. Whether that means talking about sexual assault, suicide, teen drinking, pregnancy, discrimination, or something else. 

At my high school, I was barred from putting up posters for See You at the Pole by the former principal. The reason given was that it could present a “disruption” by forcing him to allow anti-religious students to put up posters in opposition to the event, lest someone consider the school to be “endorsing religion.” I was unaware of my rights at the time so I didn’t question it. Once he retired, his replacement allowed the posters. 

But the damage was already done. After that, I self-censored two newspapers out of existence because I was made to believe that ideas and beliefs were dangerous things. 

Silence, however, is far more dangerous.

Allowing students to ask difficult questions, express themselves, and debate as equals enables progress in the long term on important issues. 

There is, of course, responsibility that comes with that right, as with all local, independent journalism. Students should use good and ethical editorial practices. This is where guidance does far more than censorship. Students should also not lie, advocate for violence, harassment, criminal activity, etc. 

There is, of course, an obvious difference between permitting free speech and endorsing all of its political ramifications. High schools, like colleges, are capable of allowing free speech and distancing themselves from it.

As Thomas Jefferson said, even “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Very clearly, freedom of speech, with the rule of law, is the best attack against intolerance and misinformed ideas.

Someone may try to do away with both freedom of speech and the rule of law for a chance to accomplish some societal good, but as A Man for All Seasons made clear, that route leaves no protection if the “devil” you were pursuing suddenly turns on you. 

Just the same, it is dangerous to depend on “reasonable” people to execute ill-defined laws without prejudice. 

As the maxim goes, education is teaching students “how to think, not what to think.” And the critical examination of the issues is central to the mission of any student publication. 

Because, in the end, students should be able to question things. They should be encouraged to research and formulate their own opinions, engage with other students, and respectfully present their positions. And they most certainly should have the right to write about topics of importance to their peers, even if they may not exactly follow the “party line” of the school administration. 

If they want a PR mouthpiece, they should pay for one. 

Jacob Stewart

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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