Controversy over freedom of speech in school newspapers resurfaces

Emily Eichberg
editor-in-chief

“When you are on the side of free speech you will never lose,” Kathi Duffel said.

As students, we have been taught the value of free speech and how important the words we speak and write are, and as journalism students, that lesson is more important now than ever.

In California, Bear Creek High School newspaper advisor Duffel has put her job on the line to defend the First Amendment rights of her student journalist, after their school board demanded to preview a profile article about an 18-year-old student at the school who works in the adult entertainment industry.

On Apr. 11, the school board released a letter that threatened to fire Duffel if the article were to be published without being previously submitted to the board for review. Duffel, who was recently named the educator of the year by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists, said in an interview with CBS, “We believe that this student has every right to tell her story legally and that we have every legal right to tell it,” Duffel said.

On May 3, the article was published, without prior review from the school board but without firing Duffel. The board did ask for a disclaimer to be published ahead of the article that would state “the district’s disapproval, as well as a right to censor future articles,” Refinery29’s Joyce Chen wrote in an article about the efforts of both the board and Duffel, but Duffel and the staff declined to include the disclaimer when published.

New Voices Act

As of Oct. 1, 2016, the state of Maryland is protected by the New Voices Act. This bill protects the rights of student journalists as well their advisers and teachers against retaliation for content published, to the same degree the First Amendment does. The New Voices Act also protects Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. While the act does protect First Amendment rights, it does not protect writing that may be defined as obscene, threatening or gratuitously profane, which is the grounds of the school boards’ concern. If California did not have this level of protection, Duffel’s actions and her fight would have been quickly shut down because they wouldn’t have had the legal protection for the freedom of press and Duffel most likely would have been fired for not following orders.

Common Sense

Common Sense newspaper has had its share of criticism, including accusing newspaper adviser and English teacher Evva Starr of promoting vaping and juuling for a joke about the viral trend in an issue earlier this year. “The first thing I do when responding to someone who comes to me with criticism of our paper is thank them. If they care enough to come to me with concerns it is validation that people think that what we have to say matters,” Starr said.
The most criticism we receive is about opinion articles. Earlier in the year, an opinion article was published about the popularity of taking the required health course online over the summer, instead of taking it in school, which upset the teacher involved.

Criticism of journalists

Criticism and backlash towards journalists is an ongoing issue in today’s society. People do not understand or agree with the role that high school publications play, nor do they understand or agree with the responsibilities they hold and the actual laws that protect speech. Although we are not yet adults, we are still protected by the First Amendment, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

The more pressing issue with free speech today is the nationwide battle over “fake news.” Since President Trump entered the political spotlight, outrage towards media sources has grown, due to his constant encouragement of attacks on media. Journalists have the responsibility to report on events, information, opinions and trends, good and bad, that happen in our community that people want and need to read about.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that people like Duffel fight back when told that First Amendment rights do not apply to us as a high school paper. If we continue to sit back and watch the value of press continuously be attacked, soon enough the values of democracy could be tarnished as well. If high school journalism isn’t taken as seriously as any real world publication, there will be no one left to report all aspects of news in future years. “There’s just so much happening in the news world and for schools to be able to produce top quality journalists and have that foundation is extremely vital for our society and for our democratic society,” Principal Kimberly Boldon said.
New York Times Company vs Sullivan (1964)

In the court case of the New York Times Company vs Sullivan (1964), Sullivan argued that an advertisement published by the Times about an Alabama police department hurt its reputation, by outing the mistreatment of civil rights activists at the time. After losing in court, and losing its appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama, the Times took it to the United States Supreme Court instead, arguing that it violated First Amendment rights because the advertisement was not published to hurt the police department’s reputation. Unanimously, the United States Supreme Court sided with the Times, agreeing that it was protected under the First Amendment to publish those statements. This case established the right of the media to publish even factually incorrect information in the heat of debate.

If high school journalists are silenced, the future of all reporting is at stake. If students today become shaped to think that their opinions and voices are not relevant, then the future of news is threatened. If the path we are on is the path we continue on, students in future generations will live in a world where free speech is not free.

Free speech values vary over time based on how the Supreme Court rules in related cases. The Supreme Court is currently 5-to-4 favoring Democrats, who usually lean toward full First Amendment rights. Among those Democrats is Chief Justice John Roberts, who has shown interest in free speech cases and is becoming known for his support on the subject. Opposingly, Supreme Court Justice member Clarence Thomas, who votes Republican, has spoken out publicly times his lack of support for free speech for students. “In the light of the history of American public education, it cannot seriously be suggested that the First Amendment ‘freedom of speech’ encompasses a student’s right to speak in public schools,” Thomas said.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Citizens can’t be thrown in jail for no reason, discriminated against because of their religion, or denied any of their rights just because they are students, and there should be no difference when it comes to free speech.

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