Student Journalists

March 30, 1994|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA — Alexandria, Virginia. -- I wrote my first letter to the editor when I was 9 years old. As a budget-cutting measure, the county board of supervisors had planned to eliminate the bookmobile. In my rural community, the bookmobile was a lifeline not only to the county library 30 miles away, but also to the world at large.

I wrote in my letter that although I had never left my living room, I had traveled around the globe, thanks to the bookmobile. Our family did not even subscribe to the local paper, yet somehow I knew that newspapers had the power to make a difference in the workings of government. The bookmobile was not canceled.

I was fortunate to learn at an early age about the role of the press in a free society. It made a lasting impression on me. Too many of today's young people aren't so lucky. A new book published this month by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to First Amendment values, details the perilous state of our nation's high school newspapers.

Entitled ''Death by Cheeseburger,'' the book takes its name from a 1971 article in a North Carolina student newspaper that satirized the quality of cafeteria food. The school dietician threatened to sue, and the principal shut the paper down. Talk about an object lesson in students' First Amendment rights!

At the time, the Supreme Court had recently ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969) that students do not ''shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'' The decision gave student newspapers a legal toehold from which to fight censorship by school administrators.

But the going was tough. ''Captive Voices,'' a 1974 report on scholastic journalism by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, found that despite the Tinker ruling ''censorship of journalism is a matter of school policy . . . in all areas of the country.''

In 1988, the Supreme Court partially closed the door for student expression that had begun to open with Tinker. The court's ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier upheld the broad power of school officials to censor student publications. Said the court: ''Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities, so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.''

In practice, the Hazelwood decision has become a virtual blank check for school administrators predisposed toward censorship of student publications. And all too many students censor themselves, afraid to provoke a conflict with the principal. According to Mark Goodman of the Student Press Law Center, Hazelwood has led to ''a dramatic increase in the amount of censorship of high school publications.''

Amazingly, many professional journalists themselves tend to pooh-pooh the First Amendment rights of their younger colleagues. Some argue that teen-agers are too immature and naive to practice responsible journalism. In response, John Seigenthaler -- the chairman of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and former editor of the Nashville Tennessean -- tells the following anecdote about a teen-age editor.

A dropout, this young man completed his formal education at 14 and worked as an apprentice at his older brother's newspaper in Boston. When his brother was imprisoned for offending city officials, the young man became publisher of the paper at 16. His name was Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Seigenthaler notes: ''I have no doubt that the same editors . . . who deny rights to student editors would have found Ben Franklin immature, irresponsible, insensitive, and intrusive of the privacy of others. His paper included examples of bad grammar, occasionally bad spelling, and often bad taste.''

Another criticism of student journalists by their professional counterparts is reflected in this diatribe by one hard-bitten editor: ''The school administration is the publisher of the newspaper and has the same right to censor the student editor as my publisher has to censor me -- and I am 55 years old. The student editors should grow up.'' But this complaint ignores an important distinction: school administrators are state officials, not private newspaper publishers, and that makes them subject to a higher standard -- the First Amendment.

Furthermore, principals are paid to teach the very democratic values they undermine when they censor student speech. As Justice William Brennan pointed out in his Hazelwood dissent: ''Such unthinking contempt for individual rights is intolerable from any state official. It is particularly insidious from one to whom the public entrusts the task of inculcating in its youth an appreciation for the cherished democratic liberties that our Constitution guarantees.''

Yet there is hope. Many principals refuse to use the big stick that Hazelwood gives them, choosing instead to teach their students about freedom of the press. And the Supreme Court notwithstanding, citizens are still the ultimate enforcers of the First Amendment. Just because the court accepted a lower standard for student press rights in Hazelwood doesn't mean the rest of the country has to.

In fact, five states have passed laws protecting the right of students to control the content of their publications -- subject to the same restrictions on obscenity and libel as professional journalists. Such laws tell students that their voices count, whereas school censorship breeds cynicism about constitutional values. As taxpayers, we have the power to decide whether our schools will teach submission or citizenship. In a democracy, that's an issue of survival.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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