On Jan. 13, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that public school administrators could exercise prior restraint over school-sponsored student newspapers — censor them, in other words, before publication. That decision led a number of teenagers in Los Angeles to form a nonprofit, student-written newspaper called L.A. Youth to replace their school newspapers, which were already suffering from state budget cuts, despite a California law that protects students’ free-speech and free-press rights.
The state law, which has been in effect since 1977, protected public school students’ right to a free press and shielded California from the Hazelwood decision. But Donna Myrow, executive director of L.A. Youth, said Hazelwood helped prompt the creation of the county-wide publication because of worry that “the Legislature would introduce a bill to clamp down on student press rights.”
L.A. Youth is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and has a readership of more than 500,000 California high school students.
L.A. Youth, the organization that operates the newspaper, fills a gap in today’s high school journalism education, said Myrow. “Most schools we work with do not have their own papers,” she said, adding that “the ones that do publish intermittently,” and have advisers with no journalism training.
L.A. Youth has faced challenges during the last 20 years, many of them related to the sometimes-controversial nature of its content, including stories about teen sexuality. After a story was written about homosexuality “one assistant principal tried to stop the paper from being published,” Myrow said.
Such challenges have provided opportunities to teach the newspaper’s staff of almost 70 students about First Amendment issues. In 2006, L.A. Youth received a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation to develop a yearlong First Amendment Awareness Project. The project included workshops for students and teachers, essay contests and a survey to ascertain what local students knew about their First Amendment rights.
“The majority didn’t have a clue … that was very surprising,” said Myrow.
L.A. Youth has five full-time adult staffers to work with the student writers, who must be between 13-18 years old and live in Los Angeles County. The students propose their own story ideas to three adult editors. L.A. Youth publishes 120,000 copies of the 28-page newspaper every other month. The newspaper is distributed to teachers in local schools who have requested it to use in their classrooms to encourage awareness of issues like teen sexuality, AIDS, racism, drug abuse and violence. The newspaper is also sent to public libraries, youth organizations and individual subscribers in the area.
“These aren’t blogs that we produce,” Myrow said, “but really serious issues that will hopefully inspire teens to civic action.”
L.A. Youth is a nonprofit organization funded by a number of major corporate and private donors. It is run by a board of directors.
Melanie Bengtson is a junior studying political and economic development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.