To the editor:
“An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.
Like it or not, journalists do the lion’s share of reporting to Americans as to what its government, be it national, state, or local, is doing or considering.
So during a time when we can choose from a multitude of news outlets, it’s important that we understand basic principles of journalism — independence, accuracy, fairness, the separation of opinion from news reporting.
That education should start no later than high school with students learning the responsibilities that come with the freedom of speech and freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment.
That’s why the American Bar Association endorsed the New Voices legislative movement, which strengthens the ability of students to exercise their First Amendment rights in an educational setting.
“The ABA has emphasized time and again the importance of civics education in a free society,” said attorney Estelle Rogers of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, “… and I cannot think of any more meaningful civics education experience than participation in the journalistic process.”
H.B. 1016 filed in the Indiana House or Representatives embodies the New Voices language. The authors are Reps. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, and Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis. The Hoosier State Press Association, Indiana Collegiate Press Association and Indiana High School Press Association all support H.B. 1016.
High school, and to a lesser degree, collegiate journalists, need legislation to protect a Constitutional right because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that a school principal could block publication of two articles in a student newspaper because he considered them inappropriate. (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) This opened the door for school administrators to censor student journalists under a vague “pedagogical” standard.
Before the Hazelwood case, student free speech limits were based on Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), where the Supreme Court ruled that students did not leave their First Amendment rights at the school house door. Action by school administration to block student publication was only appropriate if the speech incited students to disrupt the operation of the school.
New Voices legislation restores this clear standard for student journalists. The Student Press Law Center has not been able to locate one lawsuit where a plaintiff has been awarded damages for a story written by a student journalist in any state that has passed New Voices legislation, which covers an accumulated 170 years of legal action when you add how many years each of those states have operated under these laws.
Under the Hazelwood standard, at least two Indiana school districts have agreed to monetary settlements due to principals or superintendents over-reaching the vague standard, and uncounted student journalists have censored themselves because they believed school officials would not let them speak out on what might be considered controversial subjects.
H.B. 1016 gives aspiring high school and collegiate journalists the opportunity to learn how to craft accurate and fair stories that concern their school communities. They learn the importance of using credible sources, how to fact-check, and recognize community standards.
High school publications advisers have to be certified to take on the responsibility of guiding the students in this educational process, so students learn that with freedom of speech comes responsibility.
Repeatedly, studies have shown students involved in journalism academically perform better both in their high school and collegiate careers. Even students who aren’t part of a robust journalism program benefit from the work done.
Student publications frequently dispel the rumors around an incident that explode like wildfire on social media. This responsible reporting helps teach all students the differences between journalism and social media postings or cable “news” programming that fails to delineate between opinion and fact-reporting.
The IHSPA can even document how a high school publication’s story about binge drinking by teenagers saved a life in the Mooresville community.
While H.B. 1016 allows students to learn how to write and report news, advisers and school administrators still have the ability to step in if the students cross a line with a story that is libelous, violates state or federal law, incites students to commit unlawful acts, would disrupt the operation of the school, or is profane.
We hope that the House Education Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, will approve H.B. 1016, as it did last session. At that time, Rep. Behning said, “[I] know that if we don’t give students the voice and the ability to communicate, they have the ability to go on social media and all sorts of other avenues that could be much more inappropriate. This way, we have the ability to have students who really are focused and, I think, will do an effective job.”
In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information, an understanding of how the First Amendment works and its role in a democratic society is crucial. H.B. 1016 is a step forward in educating today’s youth in how to be responsible citizens. We urge students, parents and civic-minded Hoosiers to ask their state legislators to support this legislation.
Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association; Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association; Adam Maksl, executive director of the Indiana Collegiate Press Association
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