Transcript of the episode “Challenging censorship: Student journalists fight back”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Hillary Davis, Advocacy and Organizing Director at Student Press Law Center (SPLC), and Sara Fajardo, first year student at Rutgers and a graduate of SPLC New Voices Student Leaders Institute. We’ll be discussing the ongoing work to protect and ensure student press freedom. Welcome, Hillary and Sara. 

[00:00:44] Hillary D: Thank you so much for having us. 

[00:00:46] Jon M: What is the Student Press Law Center and what does it do? 

[00:00:50] Hillary D: The Student Press Law Center is an organization that has been around since 1974, that exists entirely for the support of student journalists. We do that in a number of ways. Key to our work is our legal hotline, which is available for free for student journalists and their advisors to answer any legal questions that they have. So that can be questions about copyright, questions about libel and slander, questions about open records, anything that they’ll come up with during the course of an investigation or writing. We also help them navigate issues of censorship and talk with them about what their rights are and what they can do to fix situations that they may be in. Sometimes, when it’s necessary, we do help them to secure a local counsel if they need legal representation. 

The other things that we do, we do a ton of education for student journalists, advisers, and the public around student media, law, student press freedom and all of the issues that I’ve cited that the legal hotline does. And my work is related to advocacy, restoring and protecting the freedom of the student press and shoring it up from any attacks that may come. Key to my work is work with the New Voices Movement, which is a non-partisan grassroots, student driven movement to get student press freedom protection laws passed at the state level. And I do that by supporting the advocates, the New Voices students and advisers on the ground. And we’re also always looking out for the new things that are coming that are going to make it harder for student journalists to do their job. It’s a lot, you know, there’s a lot, 

[00:02:36] Amy H-L: Sarah, you experienced censorship at your high school. Would you tell us what happened?

[00:02:42] Sarah H: Yeah. So there are definitely multiple instances. The story that really stands out the most, I think, happened my sophomore year of high school. So a big debate in my school was always that there were not enough chairs in the cafeteria. Some kids had to sit in the hallway. Some kids sat with their teacher. God forbid, you had to sit in the gym. That was like a social faux pas if you were older than a freshman. So everyone was always complaining about not enough seats. So my good friend and I decided that we were going to write an article that would force the school to expand the cafeteria seating. 

And so when we were doing research for the piece, we actually went to the cafeteria and physically counted all the chairs and all the tables. And then, you know, as we were leaving, I looked at the maximum occupancy sign in the cafeteria. And I noticed that after counting, we were well over the number of chairs to begin with. So then my friend and I were like, wow, let’s pivot this story. This is like a fire hazard. There is so much more to this. So we wrote the article on it and it went up to review for our advisor and the other editor. 

And we were called into the assistant principal’s office and we thought we were going to receive an award. We thought the assistant principal was going to thank us and congratulate us for keeping the school safe. We thought they were going to build another cafeteria and its own building. We had all of these ideas and we quickly realized we were wrong. Well, we went up to the assistant principal’s office, and she, without saying it explicitly, told us we shouldn’t publish the article because it would be stirring the pot. The maximum occupancy sign was just a suggestion so we didn’t need to worry. And most kids actually felt more comfortable sitting in the hallway than in the cafeteria. So we were kind of shocked. I think we were just stunned. And then as we exited, the school resource officer also told us we probably shouldn’t publish, and said that the fire department would have to come and we could be in trouble, the school could be in trouble, and it could be our fault. Needless to say, we decided not to publish it,and it wasn’t until about two years later, when I got involved with the Student Press Law Center, that I realized I was being censored and also partaking in self-censorship.

[00:05:06] Jon M: Wow. What are some other examples of cases of obstacles that student journalists have encountered in reporting and publishing? 

[00:05:17] Sarah H: I think a huge one is self-censorship, and I think that’s also something not many kids know about. I know I didn’t know about it until I started working with the Student Press Law Center. Self-censorship is basically when a student decides not to publish something, not to write something, not to scope out that story, because they’re already thinking, oh no, I’m not going to be allowed to publish this. I’m going to get in trouble. I’m going to get my advisor in trouble. So no one is explicitly telling them not to publish it or seek out that story, but they’re already thinking to themselves, oh, I probably shouldn’t. And the New Voices bills would kind of bring light to this. A lot of the work the Student Press Law Center does with students across the country is teach them about self-censorship, which is just a big thing that I know almost all of my friends at newspaper in high school did without realizing.

[00:06:10] Jon M: What are some of the kinds of pressure… I mean, you, your example was very vivid. I can just imagine the scene. But what are some of the kinds of pressures that are put on students and also on faculty advisors to censor stories, either implicitly, as in your case, or where it’s really explicitly. 

[00:06:32] Sarah H: When I was in high school and still sometimes even now, I was in a group called the Garden State Scholastic Press Association. And it was a student chapter group where students from across New Jersey would meet and we’d talk about all things journalism related, but a lot of times censorship. And most kids had similar stories where they either self censored or they were explicitly censored because they could make the school look bad. And I think that’s the big overall theme that an advisor or an administrator or whoever it may be will encourage you not to publish something because it could give the school a bad look. An example I came across was a girl I knew was trying to publish an article on the lack of school spirit at her high school. She interviewed teachers and students. Just like any good news articles, she didn’t put her own bias into it and she let the quotes run the article. So it really wasn’t an opinion piece at all. And then, unfortunately, she was discouraged and decided not to publish it because they were just concerned that that would not put the school in a positive light. And I’ve heard lots of other stories like that as well. And then besides the students, the advisors, if they let students publish an article that could make the school look bad or reveal something about the school that the school doesn’t want out there, they could face pressure, even, you know, being fired or pushed out by the administration.

[00:07:58] Hillary D: Yeah, to sort of piggyback on that a little bit. I mean, the stories that we get, the reasons that students are censored in the ways that they are censored, runs a whole spectrum. You have situations like Sarah had, where she was called in front an administrator and subtly told not to publish something. There are more overt discussions. They tried to toe a line with Sarah. There are other times where it’s, you can’t publish this, absolutely not. You will get in trouble if you try. 

And there are much more subtle ways. There’s administrators who engage in prior review and they will tell a student they need to sign off on an article before it goes to print. That’s really bordering more on prior restraint, but then they’ll just hold the article until after the publication deadline has passed and make the whole article moot. And so they’ve never told the student there was a problem. They just got “too busy.” 

A lot of the censorship that we see does come down to pressuring advisors. If you pressure an advisor to squelch student’s speech, student freedom, you don’t have to talk to the student directly and you don’t have to get in trouble with their parents. And so there’s a lot of pressures on advisers with threats sometimes of professional retribution, if they don’t crack down on their kids, encourage them to seek out non-controversial stories. We’ve had award-winning advisors who have been fired or pushed out or reassigned over various small things. 

Kids have been censored over stories about the tampon tax. They’ve been censored over stories about curriculum changes. They’ve been censored over stories about… Very often what happens is that they get censored because either they’re talking about something that’s going to make parents nervous. It’s not even that it makes the school look bad. It’s just a topic that makes parents nervous or they’re looking into and providing oversight into the school administration, as Sarah was. She was providing critical oversight into the school. That happens very, very often.

Yearbooks are censored all the time. This is yearbook season. We expect that many yearbooks are going through the censorship process right now. They’re censored because, oh really anything. Because they’ve let students wear shirts representing their political beliefs in the yearbook, which those students have a First Amendment right to do, or they have included pictures of students wearing masks or not wearing masks during COVID. They included timelines of world events. The yearbook is a very highly censored piece of material. Unfortunately, we see that all the time. 

[00:10:39] Amy H-L: What are the constitutional rights of student journalists, and how did they differ from the rights of other journalists?

[00:10:47] Hillary D: Well, it’s sticky. Student journalists’ constitutional rights actually differ from the rights of every other student. Most students on campus, they have their rights protected by a Supreme Court case, Tinker vs. Des Moines. It’s the very famous black armbands case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that as a student, your right to free speech does not stop at the schoolhouse gate. Your school has some limited ability to determine what you can and can’t say while at school, and that is generally related to the health and safety of the school and whether or not what you’re doing provides a disruption. So as a student, you can wear the t-shirt within reason that says what you want it to say. You can pass out your petition on the quad. You can, you know, have a discussion with your teacher wherein you disagree with them. That’s all protected by the First Amendment. As long as you’re not doing something like standing up in the middle of the pep rally and screaming that there’s a snake when there’s not, causing chaos. 

However, student journalists who report on these issues can legally be censored currently. That’s because of a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that we know of as Hazelwood, but it’s Hazelwood vs Kuhlmeier. A student journalist had written about teen pregnancy and divorce, very sort of non-controversial topics, just talking about what was happening to students, and they were censored. She took that all the way up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said, well, if it’s in school sponsored media, your school has a little bit more leeway to censor your speech than if you were just writing it down and passing it out to your friends on the clock. The tricky thing is that they said that you can only be censored if it is ” reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern,” but they didn’t provide any guidance as to what that means.

And so in the following 30, almost 35 years now, the school administrators have really interpreted that to mean that student journalists can be censored for virtually any reason. So to go back to your original question, professional reporters have a very clear First Amendment right to do a good number of things. Obviously they can’t engage in libel and slander. There are certain telecommunications laws and other things. Students on campus don’t have completely free speech. There are some limitations. Student journalists on campus have less rights than any of those other categories. So they can write about all this on their personal social media. They can write about it and pass it off out on the quad. They can yell at in the middle of the quad. They can have all of these discussions. The second it’s in school-sponsored media, when the kids are trying to learn media, law and ethics, and how to do this correctly and responsibly, then it’s censorable.

[00:13:45] Amy H-L: What’s missing?

[00:13:47] Hillary D: Clarity and guidance is what’s missing. I think we all agree that there are appropriate times when individuals, adults, may have to step in and redirect students and help them to stay on the right side of things. They certainly do that all day long with their other students, but because the standard is so mushy and so unclear and has been so wildly over interpreted as being “censorship for any reason,” we have a situation now where, like Sarah has mentioned, kids self- censor across the board. So what is missing is real clarity that student media is determined by the students, that it is not a mouthpiece for the school. It is media, it is journalism, and making that clear, that students are in charge of determining what’s in it.

And then being very, very clear about when it’s appropriate for administrators to step in and to say you can’t publish that. That’s what the New Voices bills do. The New Voices bills really aim to add that clarity back into state law so that there’s no question, if a piece comes across an administrator’s desk, of whether or not it’s appropriate for them to step in and provide some guidance.

[00:15:01] Jon M: So, what do the New Voices acts provide? What do they say? 

[00:15:06] Hillary D: The New Voices laws are very, very simple and straightforward. Key to them is that student journalists determine the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of student media. They decide what goes in. The bills also are very clear that a student journalist cannot be censored except in very specific circumstances. Those really mirror the Tinker standard. So students can be censored for libel and slander, unwarranted invasions of privacy, violations of state and federal law. That’s things like the Telecommunications Act that we talked about, and if they encourage students to engage in a material and substantial disruption to the school. The vast majority of student journalists are never, ever going to come across that situation because they are following journalistic laws and ethics. Key among those is do no harm. And knowing what happens when you put a story out. So they won’t run a foul of that law. 

The other thing New Voices does is it ensures that no advisor can be penalized or lose their job for refusing to infringe on their students’ free speech rights. It’s just very clear that you can’t lose your job or be reassigned because you have refuse to censor a student journalist. 

That’s it. The bills are like two, three pages long, very simple, very straightforward, very clear, just so everybody knows their rights and responsibilities under the law. 

[00:16:35] Jon M: And how do the SPLC and New Voices Student Leaders Institute work to get these laws passed?

[00:16:42] Hillary D: SPLC works by supporting the advocates who are on the ground. New Voices is a grassroots movement. It existed long before SPLC took it on. The earliest student press freedom laws go back to California in 1977, and then several were also passed in ’88. And so what I do is I come in and I provide guidance and support and a little bit of galaxy brain for the advocates who are on the ground. Our advocates are students and teachers. They’re doing this on their own time. They’re doing it after school and on weekends. What I do and what SPLC does is make it easier for them. We help them with training, to know how to go through their legislatures. We help them with strategy discussions. We help them with the demystification of the legislature. Is this normal. If not, not how do I testify? How do I write a letter? And we help them with the legal background and framework and consultation that they may need. 

The New Voices Student Leaders Institute is a great program that’s only existed for the past three years. Sarah was in our first class. It’s an all online Institute that happens in the summer. This year, it’s happening in July and it is high school, student journalists from all over the country who come together on Zoom and spend several days with us learning strategic planning, Civics 101, how a bill becomes a law, but also how to conduct an analysis of the political situation, how to identify where the gaps are in what we’re doing, how to talk to your legislators. Those students come out prepared to serve as leaders to their communities. They go back and they work with the existing New Voices framework in their state, or they start one to get legislation passed. New Jersey had been working on a bill for several years. It’s not an accident that Sarah went through the New Voices Student Leaders Institute and now New Jersey has a law.

[00:18:45] Amy H-L: What are the major voices of support and opposition to New Voices legislation in the various states? 

[00:18:53] Hillary D: The major voices of opposition is the superintendents and the principals. They are very nervous about giving up this kind of control over the students. New Voices is currently the law in 15 states. As of right now, it’s on the governor’s desk in Hawaii. So we’re super excited that maybe there’ll be a 16th state very soon. And the reality is that the sky has not fallen for the administrators in those 15 states. Things have moved along just fine. However, the administrators who are facing it in new states get very nervous. They really don’t want to give up that kind of control, but they’re really the only opposition, with the exception of some legislators who just don’t know anything about student journalism and don’t have a clue what 16 and 17 year olds actually want to talk about. They go to stereotypes and fears about what kids are going to try to do in this student media instead of actually understanding what they’re trying to get done. That’s the only opposition. It’s based on fear and misunderstanding. The support for New Voices is quite broad. Obviously the entire scholastic journalism world is behind it. But we’ve also had support from the American Bar Association , NCTE, which is the National Council of Teachers of English, really lots of groups who are involved with free speech issues, but also who represent the kind of people that the student journalists want to talk about, the stories that get censored. There’s a lot of groups out there who are very interested in making sure that those stories can get told. So the support is much more broad based than the opposition, but it’s an opposition that’s hard sometimes for legislatures to turn away from.

[00:20:35] Jon M: Speaking of fear and misunderstanding, obviously there have been a lot of recent attacks on what is said and not said in schools. Has student journalism gotten caught up in any of this or in much of this, at this point in people saying you can’t be saying these kinds of things in the school newspaper?

[00:20:55] Hillary D: Oh yeah. A hundred percent. Not necessarily in the text of any law, although I read every one of these laws, these divisive content bills that are coming out, and a great many of them do directly threaten student press freedom. They do not carve out student speech. They do not ensure that students’ speech is protected. And so when they talk about what you can and can’t talk about at school or in school materials that extends by nature to student media, unless it’s carved out explicitly. We have asked for those carve-outs. We have been trying to advocate for student journalism, but right now there’s so much focus just on what you can’t say. And they’ve sort of forgotten that the point here is to make sure that students can continue to grapple with ideas in an age appropriate way, which everybody agrees is the point of school. Everybody is aware of these laws. Now they’re aware of the bills there. They know that these things exist and are coming if they’re not already here, but there’s not a lot of clarity as to what people actually can and can’t talk about anymore. And so, as a result, we have seen school administrators who are cracking down even harder on student journalism. Sometimes because it’s implied in the law and sometimes just because they are afraid that it’s coming and they’re afraid of what the parents are, are going to say and be upset about.

That is very much coming to a head right now during yearbook season. There are a lot of questions about what name is a student identified under in a yearbook, right, are they being identified by the name that they choose to use or the one that’s on their educational record? There’s been a lot of confusion about pronoun usage. There’s a ton of confusion about whether you can write about racial justice issues now in the newspaper. Can you even write about the anti critical race theory bills? Can you write about the debate over device content bills? Nobody’s really sure. And we are getting this kind of confusion from students, students who want to grapple with these things, who want to understand them. They want to investigate them. And these are 16 and 17 and 18 years old and are ready to go out into the world. And they’re not sure if they’re allowed to even write about the controversy around these bills. That’s very intimidating and very scary.

And I know that teachers, in particular, are very afraid of losing their jobs if they don’t actively discourage students from engaging in some of these debates. And I don’t think that those fears are unfounded. I think they’re they’re justifiable. I also think any person, teacher, student, whomever, who’s facing that situation should contact the Student Press Law Center before they make any decisions as to how they’re moving forward, because our legal team can help work through what is and isn’t the law and how to respond to these issues.

[00:23:51] Amy H-L: When a New Voices law is passed, how do students and advisers find out about it? 

[00:23:56] Hillary D: What we do now in Hawaii to make sure that that the student journalists are aware of the law and the provisions, the SPLC partners with the advocates on the ground to really get the information out about the law. We’re in the middle of that process now in New Jersey, because that law has, has only been in effect for a few months, but we, we have sort of all sorts of materials that are available that are written for not only student journalists and their advisors, but also for the administrators, so that everybody’s very clear on their rights and responsibilities. And we proactively are sending those materials out to every individual who needs to see it. So we are sending these materials to superintendents. We’re sending them to principals. We’re sending them to student media advisors, so students and advisors and administrators know what the law says. Let’s keep everybody from accidentally violating it and make sure everybody knows the rights. Beyond that, it’s going to be a constant education process, right. A law is only as good as the people who are talking about the law. And so we are working in New Jersey with GSSPA and with other groups on the ground to get that word out. The same will happen in Hawaii and has happened in other states.

That is relatively new. So if you’re in one of the 15 states that has a New Voices law and you haven’t heard about it yet from us, we’re coming. It’s just taking a little bit of time. And the more laws that get passed, the more that we need to be getting the word out. 

[00:25:30] Jon M: What were the initials that you mentioned?

[00:25:33] Hillary D: GSSPA. Sarah mentioned the Garden State Scholastic Press Association. They are good partners for getting that information out into the world. 

[00:25:42] Jon M: And you mentioned 15 states. Does that tend to follow red and blue states or does it cross those lines?

[00:25:51] Hillary D: We are non-partisan and we are bipartisan. We do have New Voices laws in some of your reddest states. Arkansas is a great example. Not only have they had a student press freedom law for a long time, but they updated it in 2019, actually twice over. And so it doesn’t necessarily follow the red/ blue traditional divide. We’re also seeing now that there are three states that have both a New Voices law and a divisive content law. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that they are havens for free speech. What it does mean is that they’ve had in those states, a lot of student journalists and a lot of advisors who’ve been willing to tell their stories. Because those stories cross party lines. There are censored topics on every side of every aisle. Believe me, nothing has been spared. The administrator is sort of black Sharpie. 

[00:26:42] Jon M: In addition to the ones you’ve mentioned, especially from SPLC, what are some other resources that student journalists and faculty members can turn to when there are attempts to censor their work? Because our audience is primarily teachers and other educators and also active students and active parents. So as people are listening and they say “I really need some help,” in addition to SPLC, where some places they can turn?

[00:27:10] Hillary D: Well, I’ll make yet another pitch for our legal hotline. That’s And you can make an appointment any time to speak with one of our attorneys. Also, the JEA. That’s the Journalism Education Association. Scholastic Press Rights Committee has a panic button that’s especially helpful for advisors. JEA is high school advisors. And so when you connect with JEA’s SPRC, it’s confusing with all the acronyms, but when you contact them through their panic button, you’re speaking advisor to advisor and they have supports that are over and above what SPLC can provide on the legal side.

If you are in college, you’re a college student advisor, the College Media Association, CMA, is very connected and is willing to help as well. There are a bunch of other free speech organizations, but I like to make sure that we’re keeping it within the family that really knows about scholastic journalism, because it is a unique set of circumstances and rules and qualifiers and qualifications.

But again, if you’re in college, the College Media Association. If you’re a high school advisor, JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee’s panic button. That’s at And for absolutely anybody, elementary school all the way up, 

[00:28:33] Amy H-L: Hillary do New Voices laws apply to private schools, high schools and colleges, as well as public?

[00:28:42] Hillary D: Some, California and Rhode Island, both apply to private schools. It is not typically the case that they end up applying to private schools, although that is in our model bill. Legislators are very nervous about telling private schools what to do. And so they very often get carved out. However, the private schools’ journalism association, PSJA, has a model school code policy that’s very similar to New Voices, and that’s a way to get New Voices adopted at your private school. And so there are a number of protections. I also want to clarify, there are some student press freedom protections for private schools anyway, generally. We at SPLC can walk you through that if you’re censored as a private school. But if you want to get New Voices, we’ve got some information about it on our website, and PSJA has their model up as well. They’re kind of going private school to private school to try to get some protections placed into code. 

[00:29:42] Jon M: Just to clarify, the New Voices legislations in most cases does apply at least to public colleges as well as to K through 12. Is that right? 

[00:29:51] Hillary D: It depends. Most of them do. I believe Virginia has a law that applies only to college students. We don’t count it as a New Voices law because Hazelwood mostly covers high school students. So it doesn’t count as New Voices if you haven’t covered high school students. College students generally have more legal protections already and more legal rights than high school students. They’re adults. They have an increased amount of a First Amendment protection. That’s not to say that they’re not censored. They are, they’re censored all the time, but New Voices, sometimes for them, is redundant. Now it’s protective. It allows for that clarity. And so we do include it, but not every state has chosen to go all the way up through college.

[00:30:34] Amy H-L: Thank you so much, Hillary Davis and Sara Fajardo of the Student Press Law Center. 

[00:30:38] Hillary D: Thank you for having us. Really enjoying this conversation. 

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