By: Nat Hentoff
For years, when I’d get calls from high-school journalists wanting advice on fighting censorship by principals and school boards, I’d give them the phone numbers of the Student Press Law Center and the local American Civil Liberties Union affiliate. Often, the student editors would go into court and win. However, professional newspaper editors in the area were usually not interested — even when I told them that public-school censors are agents of the state and that, therefore, the students had First Amendment rights.
But, increasingly, some grown-up papers are not only covering such stories but also vigorously supporting newly minted journalists. A case in point is the current battle in Pennsylvania — where student journalism first began, in Colonial days, at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania is one of seven states that provide the student press more protection than the U.S. Supreme Court did in its 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which gave principals much more authority than the court had allowed in its 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines School District ruling. In Tinker, the court held, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It should be noted that Hazelwood did not reverse Tinker. While principals can use Hazelwood to exercise more power, others around the country choose to adhere to Tinker. But, in Pennsylvania, the state board of education is considering rules that would apply to all student journalists.
The present standards say that “school officials may not censor or restrict material simply because it is critical of the school administration.” State officials want to cut that language. What First Amendment lesson would that give — to student reporters and to their readers?
Currently, students are not permitted to write anything that “threatens immediate harm to the welfare of the school or community.” The new rules would remove the word, “immediate.” As Tom Eveslage, a Temple University journalism professor, said: “If they remove this sense of immediacy from the regulations, then it’s going to be far easier for administrators” to censor based on speculation.
Also proposed is prohibiting material that “is vulgar, lewd, obscene, or plainly offensive.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette education writer Jane Elizabeth quoted Kara D. Beem, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association: “What if students wrote about a sex- education course? Is that plainly offensive? … This leaves a lot of room for interpretation.” To say the least.
Members of the state board of education also want to impose a “home rule” provision giving local administrators more control over the student press. George Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Press Association (PSPA), asked: “Should some students have more or less First Amendment rights depending on where they live or who the principal or the school board are?”
Taylor, new-media editor for the Times News in Lehighton, has been a leader in this battle for student free-expression rights in meetings with, and letters to, board of education officials. And Stephen Shenton, also of the PSPA, has called to the attention of the revisers the Supreme Court’s 1967 Keyishian v. Board of Regents ruling and a section of its 1943 United States v. Associated Press decision. As the Keyishian ruling states: “‘The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.’ The classroom is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.'”
What is remarkable about this free-press fight is the number of editorials, columns, and critical reporting pieces in Pennsylvania newspapers. I have never before seen such large-scale support of the student press from their professional elders. In addition to the Post-Gazette, the company of James Madison troops includes The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, The Morning Call in Allentown, the Centre Daily Times in State College, and the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, which emphasized in a Jan. 16 editorial: “This is an issue on which our bias is clear. Many of us on this side of the printing press found our calling in high-school newspaper offices, and we want to make sure future generations of journalists continue to have the ability to freely explore, challenge, and opine without worrying about the oversensitivity of a principal or a school superintendent.”
The Pennsylvania Constitution declares, “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man, and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
The state board of education is still weighing whether student journalists are protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution as well as by the First Amendment. Already, however, these new reporters and editors have learned that they are not alone, and I expect some of them will be encouraged to join us later.