Opinion: Protect the Freedom of the Student Press

High school newspaper staff members and supporters, including Francis Lewis News, lobbied in support of the Student Journalist Free Speech Act (S.2297/A.3079), also known as the News Voices Act (NVA) at Legislative Office Building and Capitol in Albany on April 30, 2019. In small groups, we met with legislators in their offices to raise awareness of the bill and explain why they should support it. All of us working in high school journalism have the collective goal of strengthening the student press’ ability to bring the reader real news stories, from investigative pieces that bring out truth to a feature piece like One in 5000, without having to be censored by school administration.

The First Amendment’s third and fourth clauses state that Congress cannot make a law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” It even protects our right to assemble and petition in Albany for this case. Students learn about the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case Tinker v Des Moines (1969), which protects students’ right to wear non-disruptive symbols in protest and strengthens the rights provided by the First Amendment. Sadly, this is not guaranteed for the student press. Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier (1988) ruled that a school may set standards for student speech by censoring an article if it is not consistent with its educational mission, even though similar speech outside the school cannot be censored. In this case, Hazelwood East High School’s principal was given page proofs for an issue and ordered two articles to not be published because they were inappropriate; one about teenage pregnancy and one about divorce’s impact on students. The case also ruled that newspapers that are not considered public forums, being an outlet that welcomes non-discriminating words from the general public, may have restrictions imposed on them.

New Voices New York is the group that initially advocated for the bill in the State Assembly. The group’s goal is to guarantee free press rights and protection from censorship and other penalties for student news organizations. Its non-partisan student-led parent organization, New Voices US (NV), was founded in 2011 to protect schools from the same court interpretations applied in the Hazelwood decision, and extend the expression rights present in public schools to private schools. It should be noted that NVA does not protect defamatory or obscene language, invasion of privacy, incitement to violence, disruption of orderly school operations, and promotion of illegal activity. The group’s main goal is to restore the Tinker Standard, the students’ right to free speech unless it disrupts classwork or abuses the rights of others. As of 2019, there are 14 states with New Voices laws and others laws that protect student speech. 11 states have introduced bills with similar goals, but the state legislatures in Virginia and Hawaii have already struck down their bills.

Francis Lewis News has published a few articles that did not bring out the best of Francis Lewis High School. In June 2018, fellow journalists Thomas Cheng, Ji Li, Precious Richardson, and Jonathan Wong’s dress code piece was published, and although some administrators disagreed with the opinions being expressed, FLHS News was still allowed to publish the piece. After wrapping up a presentation about free speech and press SCOTUS cases for AP Government in January, I listened to my teacher Ms. Bell talk about how lucky we are to have a principal who protects our First Amendment rights, going back to last year’s school walkout coverage and my Raiders article. But what if our principal, Dr. Marmor, was ever to leave Francis Lewis? Our First Amendment rights could potentially be endangered by a new principal and we wouldn’t be able to give our readers the truth behind issues they should know about.

We are an outlet that amplifies the voices of those with limited means of communicating the truth behind important issues. Following the publicizing of the incident with the male Raiders, Sports News Editor Victoria Sheung wanted to address the issue as the former captain of the Female A Team. Before and after New York Post’s publications and our publication of the incident, there were rumors related to Raiders that were not so friendly. As Sheung wrote in her article, a student came up to her and said “Raiders is bad,” which hurt her. The public was not able to hear from the female Raiders who had their team suspended despite not being involved in what allegedly happened that night. Sheung wanted to provide her perspective, which was overshadowed by the allegations. There is also this article, where a transgender student at Francis Lewis High School discussed how our high school could do better in supporting transgender students. While that piece could of been potentially censored under Hazelwood, it was not. Instead the article generated much needed discussion in the community, and was even forwarded to all the staff in the school. As of April 15, his article is the fourth most read article on our site according to SNO Analytics. Imagine if our Opinion section did not exist. We would never be able to read these powerful, emotional insights.

Student journalists sometimes have a better understanding of the school they attend in comparison to outside outlets who do not know much about the school other than what big event is being reported on. During the 2016-2017 school year, former Managing Editor Mehrose Ahmad and Editor-in-Chief Sumaita Hasan of The Classic published a series of articles centered on then-Interim Principal Rosemarie Jahoda, whose harassment of students and staff and midyear report halts resulted in a hallway sit-in, letter writing to the mayor and the chancellor, additional investigations into Jahoda’s previous work experience, a visit from Women’s March Organizer Linda Sarsour, and her eventual release. In the same year, journalists for Pittsburgh High School’s The Booster Redux investigation into their newly hired principal’s degree certification resulted in her resignation. In comparison to outside, mainstream outlets, students and staff are probably more likely to turn to us to address their issues because we learn and live in the same community. Back in October, Lieutenant Colonel Lahood granted my interview with him on the day Dr. Marmor publicized his prepared statement on Raiders’ suspension while declining New York Post’s request.

Although I have written examples of high schools in New York protecting student press rights, there are instances that resulted in more strict regulation of our practice. Back in April 1998, Stuyvesant High School did not receive the same freedom enjoyed by The Classic, The Booster Redux, or Francis Lewis News.  Former Principal Jinx Cozzi Perullo shutdown The Spectator due to disputes about articles “criticizing the conduct of individual teachers and the policies of the city teachers’ union.” Publication would continue following the signing of a petition among students and the writing of a charter that defined guidelines for The Spectator. In 2017, the principal of Flushing High School withheld an entire newspaper from being distributed because an article included quotes from a student saying that he felt the school lacked good teachers. The incident was later picked up by the New York Post, which published the article for them. Last year, Batoul Saleh saw her article criticizing the validity of student government elections at The Young Women’s Leadership School in Astoria literally taken down from a hallway wall by her principal because the story did not “‘uphold school values.’” In her article published on City Limits, Saleh wrote that the principal required her adviser to be part of all editorial decisions following the incident.

In the past, the SCOTUS has ruled on limitations to the First Amendment.  In Schenck v United States (1919), Justice Oliver W. Holmes wrote that the amendment does not protect words that present “a clear and present danger” to the nation. Over half a century later, New York Times Co. v United States (1971), which I wrote an AP Government research paper on, tested if the Nixon administration’s use of prior restraint or censorship with the Times’ release of a report on the US’ involvement in the Vietnam War known as the “Pentagon Papers” for the sake of national security. The Court concluded that (1) this censorship was unjustified and violated the First Amendment, (2) the vague use of the word “security” should not be used to repeal First Amendment rights, and (3) the publication did not pose a clear and present danger to the military. In similar judgement, neither our articles nor those that have been restricted by other school administrations pose a clear and present danger to our education or the school’s security.

In Albany, we received concerns about the bill, specifically if it protects “fake news” and aids the spread of false information. While talking about her concerns, State Senator Monica R. Martinez provided the example of publishing an article where a student said the sky was green. As mentioned earlier, NVNY does not protect defamatory or obscene language, invasion of privacy, incitement to violence, disruption of orderly school operations, and promotion of illegal activity. Student journalists are supposed to follow the standard professional journalists abide to regarding performance conduct and liability. Francis Lewis News has two advisers and several editors, including yours truly, editing articles and verifying information in order to provide comprehensive and accurate information in a way our readers can understand. In fact, I’ve revised this piece at least ten times, and I regularly read and edit articles by our staff at school and home.  Also, as you may have noticed, I linked several articles and documents on this piece, as I’ve done in my previous articles. We make sure our work is backed by evidence.

New Voices is an interest group, but unlike what James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, our voices are not destructive to society. We are student journalists seeking definite protection for our natural rights, the ones Thomas Jefferson said we have in the Declaration of Independence that are outlined in the Bill of Rights. It’s in our best interest to pass this bill in order to create a school environment favored by us journalists, students, and staff.