Albright: Student Press Freedom

Jan 26, 2017

In this session of the legislature, lawmakers have the chance to help student journalism thrive in Vermont.

The bill being considered by the education committee would clarify and protect freedom of the press for school publications, but with some provisos: that they don’t break any state or federal laws, are neither libelous nor slanderous, protect privacy, and do not disrupt education.

Those restrictions on student-run media have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier – the case in which a Missouri principal tried to block high school newspaper articles about teen pregnancy and divorce. The principal worried about preserving confidentiality for unwed mothers (whose real names were not used), and feared that divorced parents would be offended by the candid coverage.

The principal won by a 5-3 vote. The majority found that school newspapers are only partially governed by the First Amendment. The justices reasoned that student-run publications are not constitutionally protected opinion forums, but are more like classes, and subject to some adult control. But the decision didn’t explicitly pertain to college news outlets.

In his dissent, Associate Justice William Brennan called the majority decision “insidious.” School officials, Brennan wrote, should be fostering an “appreciation for cherished democratic liberties.”

When I taught media law in college a few years ago, I tended to agree with students who sided with Brennan, bristling at what they saw as unconstitutional infringement on their rights to uncover and share facts. In my experience, journalists-in-training, with some guidance from their teachers, are capable of making ethical decisions about news coverage.

But the Hazelwood decision set limits on school-based journalism, so lawmakers can confidently approve the bill before them, without risking irresponsible content from high school and college newsrooms.

If the legislature fails to do so, it may send the troubling message that school news gathering is just “pretend” journalism, instead of a serious training ground for the real thing. If we don’t grant student reporters freedom of the press while they’re still learning their trade, they may be less inclined to stand up for it when it really counts, as they start their careers.

As a profession, journalism is clearly under fire, both politically and economically, so it’s more important than ever to teach our children about the power of finding and telling the truth, in whatever media they choose.