First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
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 ( 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: E-mail:


Calif. expands freedoms for college press

By Melanie Bengtson New law will give student publications at public universities same free-press rights that professional media enjoy. 09.22.06

Wash. lawmakers consider bolstering student-press rights
'The right of free press is more important than the fear of inappropriate content,' says measure's sponsor. 01.22.07

Ind. principal tightens control of newspaper after editorial on gays
School board official backs Edwin Yoder's decision to review each issue, says principal must be involved if publication is going to contain sensitive or controversial articles. 02.22.07

Wash. state student-press bill dies
By Melanie Bengtson Other student press-freedom bills await action in Oregon, Illinois, Michigan. 05.11.07

Ore. lawmakers endorse student-press bill
By Courtney Holliday Governor has said he will sign measure, which would be first state law to protect both college and high school journalists under same statute. 06.22.07

Federal judge upholds 5th-grader's suspension for alleged threat
By David L. Hudson Jr. Elementary school student in Montgomery, N.Y., wrote in class assignment that his wish was to 'blow up the school with all the teachers in it.' 05.13.08

2nd Circuit: School can punish teen for online criticism
Students 'may be disciplined for expressive conduct, even conduct occurring off school grounds, when this conduct "would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment."' 05.30.08

Rhetoric aside, most First Amendment claimants lose
By Tony Mauro Beyond the scorekeeping, however, 2006-07 term gives important insights into how Roberts, Alito view First Amendment. 07.16.07

2nd Circuit: School can punish student for off-campus Web activity
By David L. Hudson Jr. Three-judge panel backs middle school's suspension of student who used home computer to send friends instant message about killing his English teacher. 08.07.07

Why we need a strong student press
By Gene Policinski Will adults empowered with prior restraint ultimately be more responsible than students following good journalistic standards? 02.11.07

School: ‘Tolerance’ editorial will not be tolerated
By Gene Policinski Giving Indiana principal prior-review power teaches students that the State's heavy hand can come down even on a plea that gays not be denigrated. 04.08.07

Did student-speech rights go up in smoke?
By David L. Hudson Jr. Court's ruling in 'Bong Hits' case limits student speech, but it wasn't a complete disaster. 06.27.07

5th Circuit extends limits on student speech
By Douglas Lee Panel makes several curious twists and turns to reach conclusion that its decision 'follow(s) the lead' of recent Supreme Court ruling. 11.27.07

K-12 newspapers & yearbooks

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