Too often we take for granted the important work happening every day in high school journalism classrooms ― where the next generation of civic, business and media leaders are developing their voices ― to bring attention to the need for public access and transparent government.
Michigan legislators have an important opportunity to encourage the new voices of tomorrow.
Senate Bill 848, the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act, would help protect student journalists at public schools and universities as they report on the issues that are important to their peers. It would stop unwarranted censorship by public school officials and establish clear rules that students and administrators easily can understand.
The bill was introduced last month by Sens. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge; Steven Bieda, D-Warren; Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba; and Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton. It was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 24 and now is before the Committee of the Whole.
The Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) supports this important and vital legislative effort.
I spent 25 years of my career as a college newspaper adviser and more than four decades speaking to high school journalists about censorship, freedom of information and the responsibility they have as citizens. I have observed firsthand the terrible impact censorship has on students and, ultimately, our society.
Our Constitution relies on an informed public to keep the government in check. Nothing is more debilitating and harmful to that cause than discouraging civic engagement in our youngest citizens. Censorship teaches student journalists not to challenge authority, not to cover stories that may offend and worse of all, to self-censor their thoughts and ideas.
Censored stories by high school administrators have included major health issues potentially affecting students (such as smoking, the HPV vaccine and underage drinking), criminal misdemeanors by student athletes and the occasional teacher or administrator, school millage elections, a fatal traffic accident involving students from the school, the nutritional values of cafeteria menus, health inspection reports on the cafeteria, and even broadcasting on the Monday morning news show the Friday night football results if the team lost.
None of these stories carried even a remote threat of disrupting the educational environment of the school or of being libelous or obscene. At worst, in the perception of a school administrator, they may have cast the school in an unflattering light.
The bill also codifies protection for student journalists at Michigan's 13 public universities already ensured by a 2001 U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Hazelwood does not apply at the college level.
High school and college journalism is a vital and important training ground for future news media staffers and for the many thousands of student journalists who ultimately choose other career paths. Journalism courses teach writing and organization skills, how to ask questions, how to do thorough research and how to evaluate the credibility of the information they’re bombarded with via social media.
Journalism students use 21st-Century technology and tools, strengthen their communication and interpersonal skills, and get hands-on training in grammar, spelling, photography, graphics, social media and design.
The learning laboratory of a journalism classroom also teaches about time management, team building and civic engagement. Students learn from their certified journalism teachers how to access public documents and attend public meetings, as well as other skills such as source development, accuracy, fairness and ethics, to name just a few. They also learn about the U.S. Constitution, including the importance of the First Amendment to the freedom for all of our citizens and the checks and balances that preserve and protect our Republic.
SB 848 balances the responsibility of public high school administrators to protect their student population from real harm or actual disruption during the school day while allowing them to serve their educational mission to educate young people about the importance of the Constitution and the benefits of being civically engaged through journalism.
This bill provides a common-sense list of obscene and libelous materials that a school can still restrict from student media. Scenarios for permissible censorship could include libel such as publishing a knowingly false article about a coach or teacher's romantic or sexual relationship with a student. This could also be a false light privacy issue. Also outing a gay or transgender student could constitute an Invasion of Privacy claim. Stories that could legitimately disrupt the school day or that would violate federal or state law also could be restricted.
The bill also insulates schools from liability for student speech protected by this measure, reduces the likelihood that schools will be sued for violating students’ First Amendment rights by censoring student journalism and, importantly, clarifies a patchwork of court decisions that have left both students and school officials confused and misinformed about constitutional protections for student journalists. We urge the legislature to pass the bill this spring to better protect student journalists.