FRANKFORT, Ky. Student journalists working for public high school newspapers would be entitled to free-speech and -press protections similar to those their professional counterparts enjoy under a proposal before the Kentucky House.
Students would be allowed to publish stories without interference from school administrators under Rep. Brent Yonts’ proposal, H.B. 43. If the measure passes, Kentucky will join at least seven other states that have enacted some form of protections for high school journalists.
“It’s important for the future of journalism, that students are taught about the responsibilities of journalism,” said Josh Moore, a sophomore journalism student at Western Kentucky University, who’s pushing the legislation.
So far, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon have passed laws giving various levels of protection to student journalists who operate school newspapers. The Illinois law does not include protections for high school journalists, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
The bill is aimed at offsetting a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which said administrators in a St. Louis, Mo., school district could censor school newspaper articles, said Yonts, a Democrat from Greenville.
Protections under the bill would extend to young journalists regardless of whether their publications were school-funded or produced as part of a class. Local school boards would be required to adopt written freedom-of-expression policies for students.
Moore said he never experienced censorship issues as a student journalist at Muhlenberg South High School, but thinks it’s important for school districts to allow the free flow of information. He’s concerned about what may happen in schools that don’t allow such freedom.
“In those schools where papers are censored by their principal, it’s just going to give students the impression that the First Amendment isn’t important and that free speech doesn’t matter,” said Moore, who now works at WKU’s College Heights Herald. “And I think that has a chilling effect on democracy as a whole.”
Since the Hazelwood ruling, school newspapers across the country have faced administrators looking to censor their publications, LoMonte said. In some instances, school administrators even have targeted what students post on Internet sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
LoMonte said the center fields about 2,500 phone calls and about as many e-mails per year from students seeking guidance. That includes about 1,000 censorship complaints nationally every year the majority being from high schools, he said.
“It’s hard to make any scientific conclusion about the instances of censorship because the most effective kind of censorship is the kind that frightens people to the point that they don’t complain,” LoMonte said. “There are far more cases that don’t reach our attention because the students are so intimidated and often uninformed.”
Betsey Bell, a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, said it’s ultimately school officials who are responsible for the publications, and they get the final say. Bell, who also advises the school’s Crimson Record newspaper, said the bill may help prevent principals from quashing stories simply because they don’t like them.
While young journalists should have as much freedom as they can, they’re still students in a high school learning environment, Bell said.
“I’m of two hearts,” Bell said. “It’s great that this young man is going after this, but at the same time, you’re dealing with high school kids.”
Brad Hughes, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said high school students are often earning academic credit for their participation, similar to a math or science class.
“The kids are there to learn,” Hughes said. “They’re not there to learn how to express themselves, they’re there to learn how to write news stories.”
But David Greer, administrator of the Kentucky High School Journalism Association, said allowing school officials final say in what gets published could deter serious investigative journalism that is sometimes controversial. The bill would not allow students to libel others or violate existing laws, Greer said, but it would prevent administrators from trying to muzzle critical stories.
“Some school administrators tend to view [a school newspaper] as a public relations arm of the school district, and they only want to publish positive, fluffy stories,” Greer said. “Sometimes we see administrators in their zeal decide they don’t want to see those more serious stories published.”
Yonts said Kentucky’s existing law doesn’t give enough guidance on what young journalists’ rights are. While the bill’s chances for passage this session are uncertain, Yonts said he wants to begin the discussion.
“It’s primarily dominated by school administrators without any real consideration to what are the rights of junior press,” Yonts said. “They’re under a lot of constraints. I don’t know that because you’re in high school, all of your rights are given up.”