By Robbie Maher
In the midst of the Trump administration, the rights of a free press are questioned daily in tweets and from the podium in the White House briefing room.
Concern about First Amendment rights is nothing new inside the less-than-democratic halls of public high schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that various constitutional rights give way to public school administrators’ orders about safety and — their favorite word of all — appropriateness.
Court rulings on the First Amendment guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” have trended against high school newspapers for decades. A 1988 case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, helped set the standard for censorship in public schools.
Vermont now has a chance to reverse that troubling trend and join more than a dozen other states that have approved or are about to approve legislation that allows free speech to return to schools. The Vermont Senate has now passed S. 18 -a bill that would allow for “student journalist(s) (to) exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored media.” The Vermont House will now consider S. 18 as legislators return to Montpelier from town meeting week break.
The Hazelwood case began in 1983 when, according to a Sept. 13, 1987, New York Times report by Mark Uhlig, “the principal of a St. Louis high school deleted articles on sex and relationships from The Spectrum, the school’s newspaper. Three students filed suit, asserting their First Amendment rights had been violated.”
The principal of this school, Robert E. Reynolds, deemed both articles to be inappropriate and not protective enough of students’ right to privacy and prevented them from being published in The Spectrum. Uhlig reported, “In their lawsuit, three student journalists, Cathy Kuhlmeier, Leslie Smart and Leanne Tippett, argued that Dr. Reynolds had interfered with the newspaper’s function as a ‘public forum.’ School officials argued that the newspaper, as an extension of classroom instruction, did not enjoy First Amendment protections.”
The case worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the principal 5-3, and stated that school administrators could censor an article if it proved “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”
This is madness! Anybody can have the opinion that something is poorly written. This ruling gives school officials the ability to act like bouncers and decide what can go and what doesn’t in a high school newspaper. This is not journalism; that’s public relations … During my two years as editor of the Bellows Free Academy Mercury in St. Albans, I have covered challenging topics that include school administrators receiving substantial pay increases when numerous teachers were cut from the budget, the Black Lives Matter group protesting outside BFA, the BFA school board’s concern that Missisquoi Valley Union had higher test scores — and the list goes on and on.
After working hard with the paper’s adviser, Peter Riegelman, and having successfully covered these issues, it is troubling to hear that, should my school administrators have wanted to, they could have blocked these stories from being published. However, recognizing the importance of the student press, BFA Principal Chris Mosca chose not to.
Burlington High School is a school that has been censored. This censorship came over a story that involved a Trump supporter being harassed at his or her school. By the Burlington High administration censoring the school paper and requesting prior review for the foreseeable future, the school is suppressing a legitimate issue that is not going away anytime soon.
What is this going to do long-term? Teach kids that whenever there is a controversial issue, to run away from it and hide?
Journalism students today should not be concerned with whether their feature story will be censored by their school’s hierarchy. Instead, students should learn, and practice skills, that make a journalist successful. Thankfully, S. 18 would rework school administrators’ ability to meddle in student news publications. Support for the bill continues to grow, including from New Voices Vermont – a newly formed group of students, teachers, professional journalists and other believers in the Student Press.
As the bill reads, nothing shall “prevent a student media adviser from teaching professional standards of English and journalism to student journalists.” These standards are similar to those listed on the Student Press Law Center journalism ethics site and practiced at BFA and other high schools across Vermont.
Since every journalism program in the state has selected someone it deemed fit as an adviser, S.18 puts the judgment about what to publish and what to delete from the student paper in the proper, capable hands of the adviser.
S.18 needs the support of parents, professional journalists, and the voters of Vermont so that it is passed and student journalists are able to experience the free and full responsibilities that the First Amendment protects in our nation.
Robbie Maher is editor and marketing director of the Bree Free Academy Mercury in St. Albans.
By Robbie Maher