It’s Time to Pass the Student Free Speech Journalism Act

Students from all across of New York City and New York State descended upon Albany on February 28, a snowy day, advocating for the passage of the Student Free Speech Journalism Act. 

The Student Free Speech Journalism Act aims to protect student journalists’ speech at educational institutions. This Senate bill will enable students to publish without fear of retaliation or their story getting taken down. As stated in the summary of the bill, the Student Free Speech Journalism Act “protect[s] student speech at educational institutions unless such speech is libelous, an invasion of privacy, or incites students to commit an unlawful act, violate school policies, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”

Student produced newspapers in New York State currently operate under the “Hazelwood” rule, which was established from the Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, 1998. Under Hazelwood, students’ pieces may be taken down if the school expresses a “legitimate pedagogical (educational) interest” with the article. But anything can theoretically be a “legitimate pedagogical interest” of the school, and therefore this broad rule can then be used to censor articles that should not be censored. The vague ruling has the potential to be applied as a form of censorship if the school disagrees with a controversial, yet legitimate news issue.  

“I think since students have freedom of speech, we should be able to publish what we want to publish,” Ayanna Hunter, a senior and co-editor in chief of the Francis Lewis News, the school’s newspaper, stated. “It shouldn’t really be something that an administrator can decide because then when you start censoring things, it’s not the truth anymore. The whole point of student journalism, or journalism in general, is to just be a voice for the people and to say the truth even when it is uncomfortable.”

There are already safeguards in place to prevent irresponsible publishing. One of those safeguard is something called “prior review” – which happens with a person of authority, in this case the principal or an administrator, reads over material before it goes public. However, prior review can pose several issues, especially in regards to tension within the school.

“When administrators are able to see things ahead of time, it can create a little bit of a tense relationship,” said Michael Simons, a journalism teacher at Corning-Painted Post high school and a leading advocate for the Student Free Speech Journalism Act. “But hopefully, there’s some boundaries or guidelines on how they’re making decisions about whether or not things are then able to be published.” 

Publishing under the school news, student journalists oftentimes have fewer rights than other students. For instance, if there was a rally or walkout that happened in a school and student journalists wanted to report on it, the principal could prevent the story from ever making it out of the newsroom if he or she disagrees. 

“Say there were cockroaches in the kitchen or somebody saw a rodent or something go through the kitchen. You want to tell that story, tell it responsibly, get the food services director quote, interview the principal, interview the students that saw it,” Simons stated. “[The principal could say], you can’t tell that story of the rat in the kitchen. You’re not allowed to, we’re gonna censor you.” 

In this above circumstance, there is a legitimate food safety concern. The fact that students are unable to hear about it from the school paper to make their own informed decisions is concerning. As a result, many student journalists grapple with the question: should I take up this ground-breaking story, or should I ignore it due to the very possibility of censorship?

Ultimately, a principal could say stories that are difficult or critical of the school go against the pedagogical interest of the school, because in the Hazelwood case it doesn’t define “pedagogical interest.” This means potentially, anything can be defined as going against the pedagogical interest of the school.

“It’s kind of awful that we have to choose between pursuing the truth or abandoning the story. It’s indicative of how little rights student journalists have.” Seva Karonis, a senior and co-editor in chief of the Francis Lewis News, the school’s newspaper, stated.

Having students feel like they can’t report on truthful stories is the antithesis for what the First Amendment stands for. It reinforces students hesistancy  to publish negative or vital information about the school even if it was true. As students we need to do whatever we can to protect our First Amendment rights. We need to write to our local legislature, inform whoever we can, and make our voices heard to pass the Student Free Speech Journalism Act.