To much of the world the U.S. is a beacon of free speech. But how much freedom teens have depends on where they live and what school they attend.

A student gets back an essay stamped "Pending Approval."

The New York State legislature is considering passing a law that would prevent public high schools from censoring student journalists unless the material is “libelous, an invasion of privacy, or incites students to commit an unlawful act, violate school policies, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”

Without such a law, public schools in New York operate under a vague 35-year old standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court that gave schools wide latitude to censor student content without violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protection of Freedom of Press.

Here at News Decoder we work with student journalists who attend our partner schools in 16 countries.

They report and write stories we publish about a wide range of controversial topics: mental health, animal rights, abortion access, sex education, immigration.

These days, teens across the world are questioning ideas of gender identity, economic and racial inequity, environmental policies and the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities.

High schools and press freedom

Journalism gives teens a forum for asking questions and finding the answers through multiple perspectives. Instead of being taught to, they seek out the answers themselves.

At News Decoder, we encourage them to critically analyze facts and opinions and think about things happening around them through a global lens.

For anyone who has not committed an act of journalism, it is a transformative experience.

Students start out nervous about talking to people they don’t know. They have been told to butt out of other people’s business and told not to question their elders. Journalism requires them to be nosy, to ask impertinent questions and to question what people tell them.

Journalism teaches them two skills that are valuable for just about any career: assertiveness and responsibility.

The cost of free speech

In reporting a story students synthesize and communicate complex information. Those who think they hate writing find it isn’t so painful and their effort is rewarded when they see a story published. And young people who think that no one listens to them find that journalism gives them a forum to be heard, even when it comes to criticizing their school’s policies and practices.

School administrators are often attacked for policies and practices students and parents don’t like. But for once maybe we need to look at something many of them are quietly doing without any kudos: supporting their students’ journalistic efforts even at the risk of bad publicity or in the face of parental backlash.

The New York State proposed law will give editorial control over content to students at public high schools. But it won’t affect private schools. The students in those schools aren’t entitled to the same free speech protections as they might be entitled to if they attended a public school in California or 14 other states that have already passed laws similar to the one proposed in New York.

See, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say that people can say whatever they want without repercussions. It says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution applied that standard to states and local governments. That means that the government or any government agency, including a public school, can’t censor speech. Private schools are not agencies of the government and so don’t fall under those limitations.

Making the First Amendment a top priority

Moreover, the First Amendment protections only apply to schools in the United States. In other countries students don’t have the same press freedom protections.

The United Kingdom, for example, has no equivalent to the First Amendment and there are a number of laws that outlaw publication of material that could harm public safety or content deemed obscene. In non-democratic countries, publishing stories critical of the government or society could be dangerous.

That’s why perhaps it is time to applaud school administrators and faculty who encourage students to report and publish stories and teach them about their rights as journalists, even where such rights are restricted.

These people are unsung heroes. They don’t get bylines and their reward for a published story by a student might be a publicity headache or worse.

The greatest supporters of free speech, perhaps, are those who have the power to censor but realize it is best not to wield it.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why don’t students in private schools in the United States have the same free speech rights as public school students?
  2. Why might a school administrator choose to grant students control over publishing their own content?
  3. Should young people have the same rights to free speech as older people?

Marcy Burstiner is the Educational News Director for News Decoder. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and has taught journalism for more than 15 years at the California Polytechnic University, Humboldt. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication

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WorldUnited StatesTo empower high school students, don’t censor them
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