Freedom Wins. School Censors Lose Another Battle

School boards, superintendents and principals in the Garden State are on notice: No more censorship thinly disguised as teaching.

New Jersey became the 15th state to enact New Voices legislation on Dec. 21, when Gov. Phil Murphy signed Senate Bill 108 into law. High school student journalists now have the right to report the news without administrative interference.

The victory for free speech and press freedom didn’t come easily. State lawmakers first introduced a New Voices bill in December 2015 following two censorship controversies — one school removed a newspaper adviser who stood up for his students and another tried to block the publication of an investigative story on the district superintendent’s alleged misconduct.

In the latter case, Northern Highlands Regional High School student Adelina Colaku spent five months cultivating sources with knowledge of formal complaints filed against the superintendent and agreed to protect their identities to shield them from retaliation. The principal and school board prevented the Highland Fling student paper from printing the story, citing its use of anonymous sources among several other excuses.

The Student Press Law Center went to bat for Colaku, noting that much of her story “was sourced to school board meetings and corroborated by school climate surveys.” After attorneys represented her pro bono in a three-month negotiation with the school board, Colaku’s story was finally — and grudgingly — cleared for publication.

Elected school board members found the hard-hitting story more embarrassing than their own juvenile attempts to bury it, so they responded by proposing “even sharper prior review policies after the controversy, including a wholesale ban on anonymous sources and a ban on appealing censorship,” the SPLC explains on its website.

Such shenanigans are now against the law in New Jersey, but unless you live in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont or Washington, they can happen anytime at your local high school.

The culprit is Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a wrongly decided 1988 Supreme Court case. In a 5-3 ruling, justices decided that officials can censor student speech in school-sponsored media if the reason is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

In theory, that rules out fears that a student’s scoop will hurt the school’s image. In practice, however, principals have no limiting principle. They censor as they please and need only claim it’s for educational reasons to discourage lawsuits.

Hazelwood is an outlier in First Amendment jurisprudence. The high court’s landmark Tinker v. Des Moines ruling in 1969 established that minors enjoy free speech rights in public schools as long as their expression doesn’t create a “substantial disruption.” Just this year, the court bolstered Tinker with an 8-1 decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., holding that a Pennsylvania high school broke the law when it kicked a student off the cheerleading team to punish her for cussing in a Snapchat story she posted off campus.

The Constitution establishes a floor for individual rights, not a ceiling. Even if courts interpret the First Amendment to allow censorship of student media, the state legislatures that regulate public education can choose to forbid it. That’s where the national New Voices movement comes in.

The battle lines don’t pit students against teachers, as faculty advisers are often caught in the middle of censorship controversies and disciplined more harshly than swashbuckling student editors. The Journalism Education Association, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and National Council of Teachers of English have all endorsed the SPLC’s model New Voices bill.

That draft legislation includes guardrails that allow schools to intervene if a story is libelous or defamatory. New Voices laws entrust teachers with the responsibility of training student journalists to seek and report the truth. Whether the truth reflects poorly on schools, districts or elected and appointed leaders is irrelevant. That’s as it should be.

Student newspaper advisers earning teacher salaries and teenagers working part-time jobs to save for college or a first car hardly comprise a powerful lobby in America’s statehouses, so New Voices bills often face an uphill climb. After six years in limbo, press freedom advocates in New Jersey proved that persistence pays off.

Fifteen states down, 35 more to go.

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