by Ken Paulson
There’s no height requirement for exercising your free speech rights.
There’s no figurative “You must be this tall” sign to qualify for First Amendment protection. Nor is there an age requirement.
As our nation prepares to celebrate freedom on the Fourth of July, it’s a good time to remember that even our youngest Americans are citizens as well. Just as government is barred from limiting adults’ free speech, public schools should have very little latitude in limiting the freedom of speech of young people.
That’s why the results of the new State of the First Amendment Survey conducted by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center is so encouraging.
A full 78 percent of those surveyed said they believe high school students should have the same freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights as adults do.
In addition, 68 percent said public school students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities, up from 40 percent when the question was asked in 2001.
There appears to be a growing recognition that in an era in which digital and social media give everyone the means to instantly communicate views to a global audience, attempts by school administrators to control the expression of young people are archaic and often destructive.
High school students have been disciplined for comments posted about their public high schools on their personal Facebook and social media accounts. Yet no one would ever suggest that adults could be fined or arrested for the sexist and racist comments that proliferate on media comment boards.
There’s similar condescension toward student media by principals who seem to view high school newspapers as an arm of the school administration.
Under the pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decision of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeir, school administrators do have the authority to censor student newspapers to address legitimate educational needs, but too often that interference is driven by other impulses.
In one recent example, Pennsylvania’s Neshaminy High School has been embroiled in controversy because the high school administration insists that the students use the word “Redskins,” the nickname of the school’s teams. The student editors refused, saying they believe the word to be a racial slur.
When a student wrote an opinion piece disagreeing with the editors’ policy, the newspaper staff agreed to publish it, but would only run the offending word as “R_______,” just as their professional counterparts do with other racially-charged words.
Astonishingly, that wasn’t good enough for the school administration, which suggested not using the full word violated the complaining student’s First Amendment rights. Really? Does that mean all epithets are fair game? And what about a letter questioning the administration’s competence? Is that also a must-run?
One irony is that the Supreme Court specifically noted that biased or prejudiced content could be censored by a school administration. What happens when a school administration is trying to put the racially insensitive content back in?
The purpose of a student newspaper is to inform a school community and give young people the hands-on experience of publishing the news. Of course, that doesn’t mean anything goes. Student journalists should be held to professional standards of fairness, accuracy and taste, which also means setting standards and applying them, as the students did so admirably in Neshaminy.
I had the opportunity last week to visit with a dedicated group of student newspaper advisors attending the Reynolds High School Journalism Institute at Arizona State University. I asked a number of the advisors about what usually prompted censorship by a school’s administration.
It’s the fear of an angry phone call from a parent, they said. Rather than run the risk of offending anyone, administrators play it safe and suppress potentially controversial content.
The new survey suggests that principals might want to rethink their strategy of avoiding a single complaint. After all, the survey suggests that for every irritated parent, there are tens of thousands of others who believe wholeheartedly in America’s core value of freedom of expression for all. Maybe it’s time for them to pick up the phone.
Ken Paulson is dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.