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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently testified in support of Vermont legislation that would protect student journalists at public high schools and colleges from being punished by administrators for stories they report.
Senate Bill 18 codifies many of the First Amendment protections that already exist for professional journalists while allowing school administrators to retain control over content that may, among other things, “cause direct, immediate, and irreparable harm.”
The legislation also contains a provision for the protection of teachers who protect student journalists or refuse to infringe on student conduct protected by other portions of the bill.
“The law would not be a blank check,” explained Michael Donoghue, who testified April 4 on behalf of NEFAC and the Vermont Press Association. “Rather, Vermont would bring the legal protection of journalistic speech in line with all other student speech in the school, meaning that anything that a school could prevent from being displayed on a T-shirt or a baseball cap could still be prohibited on an editorial page.”
“We want our students to be curious,” Donoghue said. “To ask tough questions. Not to accept everything as truth without some confirmation.”
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed student speech in two notable cases. In Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the court determined that students could not be punished for wearing arm bands to silently protest the Vietnam War. School officials, the court held, must be able to prove that the conduct in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. The court famously said that:
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
But in 1988, the same court ruled in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), that school administrators are able to punish students for their speech so long as such punishment is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Senate Bill 18 intends to provide students with the broader protections provided by Tinker. Other New England states already have protections in place for student journalists, with the exception of Rhode Island where a similar legislative effort is occurring.
Without these protections — as several Vermont students testified during the hearing — difficult though important issues such as school budgets, immigration and sexuality can not be discussed in school papers without risk of punishment. By limiting the topics students can safely address in their school publications, Donoghue explained, the education system is failing to impart on students the importance of the First Amendment and democracy.
“These days — when it’s tough to get a lot of kids interested in public policy — advocates for students think it would be smart to encourage them to write about public issues,” Donoghue said. “This is one way to educate the citizens and voters of tomorrow. We need students that can do strong research, can ask tough questions — even when it is a school official — and to present information and to properly follow up.”
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.