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Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Virginia legislators are proposing a new law to limit schools’ power to censor student publications at the middle school, high school and college level.
The legislation comes in the wake of two high profile cases of censorship in the commonwealth. At Maury High School in Norfolk, student reporters were forced to delete a broadcast about the school’s crumbling infrastructure. Then, at Radford University, an employee stole editions of the student-run paper from campus newsstands.
Should student journalists have the same First Amendment rights as professional reporters? We discuss the debate over free speech in local schools.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Hadar Harris Executive Director, Student Press Law Center
- Kate Karstens Student Journalist
MARC FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. What does censorship of student journalism look like? Well, in Virginia, at Morey High School in Norfolk, student reporters were forced to delete a broadcast about the school's crumbling infrastructure, and then at Radford University in southwest Virginia, an employee stole editions of the student-run paper from campus newsstands.
MARC FISHERNow, Virginia legislators are proposing a new law to limit public schools' power to censor student publications at the middle school, high school, and college levels. The two recent censorship cases in Virginia have pushed legislators to look again at a longstanding question -- should student journalists have the same First Amendment rights as professional reporters. Joining us to discuss the debate over free speech in local schools is Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. Welcome.
HADAR HARRISThanks for having me.
FISHERAnd on the line from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Kate Karstens is a senior at the University of North Carolina and a journalist at The Daily Tarheel. Welcome.
KATE KARSTENSThank you, good to be here.
FISHERHadar Harris, let's start with first of all, do student journalists have the same rights as professional journalists?
HARRISWell, student journalists don't have the same rights as professional journalists, and the rights that they have actually vary from state to state, depending on the level of protections that exist by law, and certainly within their own schools and school districts. Student journalists play very important roles in the media ecosystem, not just within their schools, but in the communities at large, but they don't have the exact same First Amendment rights, and -- but they play these very important roles.
FISHERKate Karstens, when you were in high school at George Mason High School in Falls Church, you were involved in a free speech battle of your own. Now, you've had a few years to think about this, but tell us what actually happened, what you reported, and what happened to the story.
KARSTENSYeah, in my second semester of my junior year, I looked around and noticed a lot of my senior peers just, you know, weren't in class. And when I casually talked to them, they were missing far more sessions than is allowed by our attendance policy, which stated that six absences in a semester will result in an automatic course failure.
KARSTENSAnd so I was wondering, you know, why are administrators not enforcing their own policy? This is worth a documenting and bringing to the public's attention. So I conducted a brief survey, I talked to our dean of students, who actually had all the attendance data and was upset that the rule wasn't being enforced, and gave me broad numbers, and I found that some students were missing extraordinary amounts of class, and some of them were missing, because they had already been accepted to college and didn't care anymore.
KARSTENSSome of them were missing because they claim they were just watching movies in class. Whatever the reasoning was, the story was there, and I wanted to write it and really research and report. And what ended up happening was a few hours after it was posted online, my journalism adviser received an email from our principal saying, you know, take it down.
FISHERAnd do you think that principal was reacting kind of emotionally impulsively, or did he have some sort of a principled policy against students taking on controversial issues?
KARSTENSSo actually, personally, I didn't think that this was a hugely controversial issue. What kind of student is saying, hey, make sure other students come to class? But actually, looking at the situation, one of the students I had highlighted in the article was the son of a school board member, and so my speculation was that the principal was facing pressure from a school board member.
FISHERSo the story was taken down, and was that the end of it?
KARSTENSNo, it was not the end of it. (laugh) I quickly got in touch with my journalism adviser, and we talked about the situation and also connected with administration to say what is the issue, what is the reasoning behind this. And we weren't exactly given a clear answer, and it was down for more than a few days, you know, at least a week, and we were pushing back and saying, We need an actual reason why this isn't going back up. Why is this happening?
KARSTENSIt was a lot of questioning. And in the end, we decided to -- we, as myself and my journalism adviser -- decided to make a concession. One of the big data points was an obscene amount of absences that a student had missed, and the student was over 18 and had given explicit written consent that that number be used. However, we sat and thought, okay, thinking about student privacy laws, maybe if we just take down that one number, that will please them and we can put the article back up. And after a lot of deliberation, that ended up being the final key, but it was at least a few weeks before that article was really back up, and that was a really tough process.
FISHERAnd in the end, the final version of the story that did run, do you think it lost any of its power and importance because of that change?
KARSTENSNo, I think the power in the article came from the big data, which we could still publish because that wasn't necessarily student privacy. And it also came from the quotes -- the same students whose exact number of absences weren't published were saying things like, If I'm going to watch a movie in Spanish class, I can watch a movie at home. That had the impact that I wanted to have when we were talking about missing class.
FISHERHadar Harris, this is a story that, although disturbing at one level, has a reasonably happy ending in that the story did get out there. What's more frequent in these kinds of confrontations? Do the stories just go away and never see the light of day, or do they end up getting published somehow?
HARRISWell, it depends. I mean, sometimes the stories get published eventually, after a lot of pushback and discussion. Sometimes they get quashed completely. Sometimes they're no longer timely or sometimes -- often -- other media outlets in the community pick them up. It is very hard to censor things completely these days with social media, with other media outlets. We've had situations where students will even put together an independent website to counter the censorship that they're encountering in their schools, and to provide an alternative outlet. And right front and center on the website it'll say, This story was censored by our school, but here we want to get it out for you.
FISHERAnd I can hear certain teachers and parents saying well, in this age of social media, anybody can post anything anywhere, so there's no censorship, really, here. There's simply an educational process in which teachers and advisers and principals are saying this is not appropriate for our audience, and so people say okay, fine, go put it on Facebook.
HARRISRight, well, so here's the problem. You know, you asked in the beginning if student journalists have the same First Amendment rights as professional journalists. It's really a question of do student journalists have the same First Amendment rights as other students in their schools, and the answer to that, often, is no. Under a 1988 Supreme Court case called Hazelwood versus Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court decided that actually, student journalists in particular had fewer, or lesser, First Amendment rights than their peers.
HARRISAnd 50 years ago, there was a court case that established the Tinker standard of free speech for students on campus that said that the First Amendment rights of students and teachers don't stop at the schoolhouse gates. Under Hazelwood, however, an exception was made for student journalists that says that administrators are able to censor student works for any reason if it's reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns. Now that, if you think about that --
FISHERWhich could be interpreted as anything.
HARRIS-- it could be anything. And so overzealous administrators, or administrators who actually legitimately think that they're doing a service to their students and community will sometimes censor student work, because they feel like either it reflects badly on the school, it exposes some sort of misconduct within the school, it touches on a controversial issue, and you know, controversial issues are very subjective.
HARRISWhat might be controversial to one person is not controversial to others. And it results in instead of encouraging student journalists to really ask hard questions, to investigate facts, to tell important stories for their school or broader communities, to censor themselves, because they don't think it'll pass muster with their administration or to get overtly censored in cases like the case that Kate describes.
FISHERKate Karstens, the idea in many states now, this push for laws that would make it tougher for school administrators to crack down on student journalism, in your case, do you think the existence of such a law would have in any way inhibited the principal, who tried to quash your story, or was this a case of the principal saying, hey, my school, we do things my way.
KARSTENSYeah, I actually think that a law like that would have prevented it, because at the time, you know, the standard we have now is that the principal is the editor of the school paper, and so he didn't necessarily have to give a reason. He just said, you know, take it down, and that type of situation is exactly what this legislation would have prevented.
FISHERHadar Harris, Virginia is now considering a bill by two delegates who are actually former journalists -- Chris Hurst from down in southern Virginia, and Danica Roem from here in Prince William County -- and what they're trying to do is limit the censorship of student publications. How would this law actually work, and does it work in other places?
HARRISSure, so at this point we have 14 states around the country, who have what we call New Voices protections. Those protections enable states and school districts to very clearly outline what is protected speech, what is unprotected speech, and to take away the opportunity for administrators to censor student work, because of very subjective considerations, but these laws don't give an unfettered right for students to publish anything at all times, and I think it's important to note that.
HARRISThere are specific areas of unprotected speech, including things that are libelous or slanderous, including things that are unwarranted invasion of privacy, that are obscene or violate state or federal law. And most importantly, the same thing is the Tinker standard, which said that if it's a substantial or material disruption of the efficient operations of the school, that a piece can also be reviewed.
HARRISSo, you know, these laws actually create an opportunity for students to control what they're publishing in a newspaper, not be subject to the subjective whims of an administrator, and to report the news, and to report their opinions. We've seen many times in Virginia and other states that important stories are taken down, and are restricted from being published. This would enable students to be able to publish their work freely, again, restoring their rights back to the Tinker standard.
FISHERAnd do you have a sense of what the prospects for this bill are in Virginia?
HARRISWe are very hopeful. We are very, very hopeful that this legislation will pass. We've got amazing sponsors, both in the House and in the Senate. The New Voices movement is a nonpartisan grassroots and student-driven movement. Kate testified on behalf of this legislation before. We had a room packed with students testifying on behalf of this legislation last year. The sponsors are very motivated, and we are hopeful.
FISHERThe sponsors are Democrats, and the Student Press Law Center has been around for a long time and has gotten bipartisan support through the years. But in recent years, we've seen a real attack on journalism, particularly from this administration and from Republicans. Has the issue of press freedom for students become a more partisan issue in recent years?
HARRISWe don't think so. I mean, last year, there were two bills passed to expand the protections in Arkansas under this New Voices framework. There are laws that exist in Kansas, in North Dakota, in Nevada, Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas. And so, you know, we see this as a real bipartisan issue. If anything, people who have a more conservative tendency might want to think about how you take government oversight out of the work and the free speech of students by restricting the ability of administrative censorship in schools.
HARRISSo we see this as a bipartisan issue. We are very hopeful that in the many states that are currently reviewing this kind of legislation, including Nebraska, that has it up for a vote -- in fact, it just passed yesterday its first reading in Nebraska -- and in a variety of states that are considering these kinds of bills that they will pass in a bipartisan way.
FISHERWe have an email from Shaina, who says, perhaps I'm alone in this, but I sense that our collective understanding of what's protected in our freedom of speech is not always in agreement with the intentions of the Constitution, because we cannot expect that any of us can say whatever we want on whatever forum and not bear the burden of any consequences, my understanding has been that we cannot be legally prosecuted for what we choose to say or write. I believe that students should of course be protected on an equal basis as professional journalists.
FISHERKate Karstens, you attended this committee hearing in Richmond about the bill to protect student journalists. What was your sense of the legislators' attitude? Often, sitting in those hearings, you get the sense that they have a very paternalistic view towards students and student rights. Did that come through, or were you more hopeful?
KARSTENSYeah, I mean, if we're definitely talking about what it felt to be in that room, which yes, it was completely packed. But when I stepped up to the podium, I looked up and saw a very concerned, full table of legislators looking back at me, and I did feel like I couldn't exactly tell, who was Democrat or who was Republican. It did feel like this was a more newer sense of legislation.
KARSTENSIt was something that maybe some of these legislators really hadn't thought that much about before. And so when they were hearing different opinions on it, they really took the time to sit and listen. And, you know, the fact that it didn't make it out of subcommittee, I didn't necessarily see that as a loss or something we couldn't come back from. I saw that as our first step.
FISHERHadar Harris, as you look at the ways in which student reporters around the country are pushing the envelope with the issues that they feel compelled to take on, those shift over time. What's your sense of what kids are, in high schools particularly, but all student journalists, what are they really aiming their reporting firepower at these days, and which of those issues are causing the most confrontations with administrators?
HARRISYeah, I'll tell you, I think that your listeners may be a little bit surprised. We've now got 30 years -- more than 30 years -- of history of censorship under Hazelwood, and so this year, actually, we did a sort of anecdotal poll of students, asking them what is the story that you would tell if nobody stopped you.
HARRISAnd what we saw was an overwhelming sense, both of censorship and self-censorship, around stories about mental health, stories about misconduct within the school by teachers or administrators, issues of race, of gender, of sexual identity that they were stopping themselves from telling, but that they really wanted to report, as well as issues of general, national, or local politics.
HARRISBut relevant issues, it wasn't like the pizza party down the block. It was absolutely hard-hitting reporting, and dealing with issues that are very important to the student community. Sometimes there's a paternalistic kind of sense of these stories are too controversial or too big for teenagers to grapple with. Well, the truth is you have to trust the students. They're getting information all over the place. And so being able to touch on the issues that are really important to students in the community from a student perspective is really very important. You need to trust the students.
FISHERVery quickly, Kate, anti-censorship movements have, at least on college campuses, we're seeing more and more coming from your fellow students. I'm sorry, not anti -- the pro-censorship movement. In other words, we're seeing more and more pushback from fellow students to their compatriots who are student journalists, saying you don't need to report about these difficult subjects, you need to be more supportive. Are you hearing that at the University of North Carolina?
KARSTENSSo I would actually say that -- well, first of all, The Daily Tarheel, which is the student publication that I work at, is actually not affiliated with the university anymore. That affiliation was broken a few years ago, or a few decades ago. And actually, because of that, I do feel like we are able to talk about really intense, complex issues that have to do with mental health. We have counseling and psychological services center here at UNC that a lot of students struggle with.
KARSTENSWhen I was editing last year, we were talking about a chancellor's forcible removal and a Confederate statue's forcible removal from campus, and I actually feel like our students looked around and said, you know, Thank you. Thank you for talking about these things. We were in the national spotlight last year, and they were able to just walk up the street and grab a paper and know what was going on.
FISHERGreat. We have to leave it there. Kate Karstens is a senior at the University of North Carolina, and Hadar Harris is executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which is sponsoring a student press freedom day, coming up January 29th at noon at the National Archives, a way to continue this conversation about the future of press freedom, especially for students. Thank you both for being here.
FISHERThis conversation about student press freedom was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Our segment about the Women's March was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up Friday on The Politics Hour, the new commonwealth attorney for Arlington County and Falls Church will be here to discuss her stances on capital punishment, cash bail, and marijuana.
FISHERPlus, Jack Evans' resignation takes effect tomorrow, and ward three councilmember Mary Che will join us to talk about his departure. That's tomorrow at noon on The Politics Hour. I'm Marc Fisher from The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.
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