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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

In today’s editorial, we’re going to ask you to remember your high school days.

We’re not asking you to relive the awkward times, exactly, but just the feeling you got from the administration. They were adults, and you were still trying to grasp algebra. They knew best, of course.

But did you know you had rights?

The case Tinker v. Des Moines may sound familiar to some. For those unfamiliar, it’s one of the first landmark cases about students’ First Amendment rights. Mary Beth Tinker donned a black armband to protest the Vietnam War when she went to school. She was a 13-year-old junior high school student with a voice. But school administrators suspended her, and her voice reached the Supreme Court.

When they enter the school gates, the Court held, students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

But Jan. 13, 1988, the Supreme Court made a decision that restricted those rights for students. The issue at hand? A story about divorce and another about teen pregnancy was set to be published in Hazelwood East High School’s paper, The Spectrum. But the principal, who felt the topics were inappropriate, prohibited the publication to run the stories. The students’ First Amendment rights were violated, they argued. Despite a lower court agreeing with the students, the Supreme Court sided with the principal and said the students’ rights were not violated. Because the paper was sponsored by the school, and because it was not a “public forum” in which everyone could share their views, the principal had the right to make the call, the Supreme Court decided.

What this means today is students are being censored by their own administration. We live in a time when news outlets are strained for resources and student journalists are becoming the watchdogs of their community.

We can point to instances where student reporters have broken news that professional papers were catching up on. Here’s one example: a high school newspaper wrote about their new principal’s credentials. She later resigned. But just last week, a Utah high school principal deleted an article the student newspaper published on a beloved teacher being fired for misconduct. In 2015, a principal in Virginia pulled an article about a new drug technique from a print version of the high school paper. He told the student reporter he feared that the article would expose pupils "to a new and dangerous drug without adult guidance," according to The Washington Post.

The point is: Student journalists deserve our support in protecting their rights. New Voices legislation, started by the Student Press Law Center, is trying to give student journalists, both at the high-school and college level, protection from censorship. Only 13 states have passed the legislation, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Spoiler alert: Florida is not on this list, although there’s a campaign to get it passed.) In six of these states, protections are limited to high-school students only.

This lack of protection has real impacts. Within these incidents of censorship are moments of defiance. The students in Utah have started a new publication outside of school control. The paper in Virginia ran the article online anyway.

But these are battles that shouldn’t have to be fought. If an 18-year-old college freshman can report on their college, why can’t an 18-year-old high school senior report on their public school?

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