Freedom Of The Student Press? Burlington High School Seniors Testify Before Legislature

Feb 9, 2017

Student newspapers at high schools and colleges are often the proving ground for budding journalists. But in Vermont right now, there's a debate over how much "freedom of the press" applies to these young news gatherers.

A bill known as the "New Voices" legislation would codify when and how school administrators are able to intervene in student news publications.

Jake Bucci and Alexandre Silberman are seniors at Burlington High School and co-editors of the school newspaper, The Register. They testified in front of the Legislature last month and spoke to Vermont Edition on Wednesday to talk about their position.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

The current policy at BHS

Bucci: "We're under the policy of prior review, which means we have to send our paper to the administration before it goes to press. So they could potentially take out things from the paper before the student body gets to see it."

Silberman: "I don't believe it's appropriate. I believe there should be a certain level of respect, trust and responsibility given to people who are 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. We do have two teachers working with us. This is part of a journalism course where we're taught the standard ethics and laws of journalism. Our teachers advise us on any controversial topics. This is not a free-for-all, just students printing whatever they'd like to print. We try and act like professional journalists, and we do a pretty good job most of the time ...

"Prior review is a new concept at Burlington High School. It was implemented in January of this year. And so far nothing has been censored. However, over the years, self-censorship primarily has been [an] issue where anything controversial, our advisor – who's our teacher – would bring to administration to see if they're OK with this, see if there would be potential pushback. And so a lot of content over the years has been omitted or pulled due to potential pushback we could receive."

"This is not a free-for-all, just students printing whatever they'd like to print. We try and act like professional journalists, and we do a pretty good job most of the time." — Alexandre Silberman, BHS student journalist

Bucci: "I also think it's a dangerous precedent to set for our student journalists. In our class, we're teaching the journalists of tomorrow, we're teaching our generation of how to report on happenings. And in a time where good journalism is more important than ever, we should be teaching them that censorship in any form is not OK and you should be able to publish the facts without fear of backlash. So this policy by administration of prior review, but also the ability for them to censor us, is really prohibiting us from teaching our students what the role of journalists [is] and the importance of journalism."

Silberman: "This fall, there was a potentially racist sign that was brought into a Rice vs. Burlington football game. And I believe the sign said 'Five convicts, four gang members, three fathers' ... It was a Rice student who brought the sign in and it was directed at the Burlington team. And I reported on this and I wrote a story about it, and given the subject and the controversy behind it, my teacher brought it to administration – to the principal – and they suggested that we did not run the image of the sign and that we did not include [in] the article what the sign said. And the way I see it, it's impossible to properly inform the public and for a member of the public or the community to have an informed opinion on this issue, if they don't even know what the sign said in the first place."

The New Voices bill

Bucci: "[It's] something that gives students control of their own newspaper. It forbids administration teams in schools from editing the newspaper before it goes to print. So it really gives student journalists the opportunity to be journalists and to cover stories without fear of backlash from administration."

"[The bill] really gives student journalists the opportunity to be journalists and to cover stories without fear of backlash from administration." — Jake Bucci, BHS student journalist

Silberman: "After the Hazelwood ruling, it's really left a lot of discretion up to the principal and to the administration, and what they can censor in a student publication. And so what New Voices does is it creates a set list, a definite list, of what can and cannot be censored."

Testifying before the Legislature

Bucci: "I really emphasized the point about the dangers of censorship and also the importance of, we are student journalists, but when we step into that room every other day, I'm more of a journalist than a student. I take my responsibility as a journalist very seriously and it's almost condescending to hear administration not trust us with this publication, to say that we might publish things just because, just to incite controversy. And that's completely not true. There needs to be trust from principals and administrations around the state that we take pride in our work and we really believe in what we do."

Silberman: "I testified about a specific incident this December where I personally received pushback for an article that I reported on and published in the newspaper. It was an article about a specific student and there was backlash from the student and also kind of some backlash from administration as a result of that piece. And so I talked about that situation."

"When we step into that room every other day, I'm more of a journalist than a student. I take my responsibility as a journalist very seriously and it's almost condescending to hear administration not trust us with this publication." — Jake Bucci

VPR: Some of the other people who testified – not in opposition, but who raised concerns – suggested that there should perhaps be a limit between total freedom of the student newspaper to publish without any kind of prior viewing from an administration, and maybe the ability for the administration of a school to say they should be able to review for a few certain things to make sure that this publication is safe and falls within the standards of the school.

Bucci: "We're not just going out and publishing things in the newspaper that are inciting students to break rules. We have always followed the school guidelines with our school newspaper, and I believe – I might be mistaken on this – but the New Voices bill, you can't be libelous or slanderous in the newspaper, you cannot use profanity. There are still restrictions within the bill, so it's not a complete free-for-all ...  We have very smart advisors who guide us through the process, so it's not completely us."

Silberman: "The whole problem here is that so much is left up to the principal. With the Hazelwood ruling, basically anything that's against the educational mission of a school can be censored. So you can twist that and turn that in any direction, anything can be censored. What New Voices does, it really creates a set of standards, specifically what can and cannot be censored. And to address those concerns of the school board, there's bullying and harassment laws that are in place and school and district policies that would supersede this law. There's privacy laws that would interact with this. Libel would not be allowed and any other laws that are in place would apply."

"Students learn through making mistakes. If students don't have the opportunity to maybe run something that they shouldn't have run and face those repercussions, they're not going to learn what's OK and what's not OK at a print newspaper." — Alexandre Silberman

VPR: There's also the argument that many people working at student media are minors, and part of the reason to have an advisor and also somebody who can check over the paper is to protect the students who are still learning the skills.

Bucci: "I don't think we necessarily need protection. I think the more proper word would be 'guidance.' We need our advisors ... who are adults, who are experienced in this process of, you know, telling us what we can and what we should publish."

Silberman: "We're working very closely with advisors, but the main problem at play is that decisions are being made without students being present, when administration or the principal determines what content is there."

VPR: Let's say your advisor expresses concern about a piece you want to run and possible repercussions, and wants to bring it to the principal. What should happen in that situation?

Silberman: "I'd rather discuss it with my advisor and have that be a conversation between us two, rather than bring the principal into play."

VPR: And if the advisor advises not running a story?

Silberman: "I believe the ultimate decision should be with the editors, the student editors ... People need to keep in mind that these are student newspapers, these are student publications. The content isn't obscene most of the time, it's not crazy content. And students learn through making mistakes. If students don't have the opportunity to maybe run something that they shouldn't have run and face those repercussions, they're not going to learn what's OK and what's not OK at a print newspaper."

Correction 10:58 a.m. 2/10/2017: This post originally stated that the New Voices bill was debated by the full Senate on Thursday, Feb. 9. That planned debate was pushed back, and the bill remains on the Senate action calendar. Find the most up-to-date status of the bill here.