Steve Ranson: Restoring journalists’ First Amendment rights at the school door

Thirty years ago — Jan. 13, 1988 — the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision student journalists shed some of their constitutional rights at the school door, and as such, school administrators retained the right to remove material they deemed inappropriate ... or in many cases ... embarrassing to them personally.

Wednesday kicks off the Hazelwood Day of Action, a year of nationwide activities and collaborations designed to reflect on the decision and focus on New Voices legislation.

The principal at Hazelwood East High School believed the student newspaper The Spectrum went too far with two stories on divorce and teen pregnancy, even though pseudonyms had been inserted. In Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the justices overturned a lower court ruling stating “the principal’s actions did not violate the students’ free speech rights.”

Because the school sponsored the newspaper, and many school districts consider the principal as publisher, the court said Hazelwood East High School had a right in preventing the publication of the two articles. The ruling has endured for almost 30 years until many states’ legislators, with the guidance of the Student Press Law Center and other interested parties such as state press associations, began passing legislation challenging the constitutionality of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

Nevada Senate Bill 420 was part of a national push called New Voices to counteract a trend by some school administrators to censor student journalists. The bill sets a standard in Nevada that clarifies the school’s ability to limit articles by student journalists only if they create a danger of “substantial disruption” to education — the same free-speech standard applied to T-shirts or hats.

Along with the strong support of the Nevada Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, for example, students, teachers, Nevada State Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro and University of Nevada, Reno media law professor Patrick File testified in front of two Nevada legislative committees in favor of the bill during the spring of 2017. It passed 21-0 in the Senate with bipartisan support and 30-11 in the Assembly with most Republicans opposed. Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the bill in early June.

A Nevada incident in 2010 became a national catalyst to why student journalists shouldn’t be censored. A situation involved the newspaper editor of the Greenwave Flash at Churchill County High School. Her superintendent and principal had the courage to allow the student editor’s story to be printed on a music teacher who withheld audition tapes from being submitted for the all-state choir. The teacher unsuccessfully filed suit against the superintendent, principal, adviser and the local newspaper editor for allowing the article to be published in both the student and local community newspapers.

Move forward to last spring when a high-school journalism case arose in Kansas, and its outcome was presented to Nevada legislators during their hearings on SB 420. Kansas high-school students wrote an article exposing their incoming principal as a person who had obtained questionable degrees in her career field of education. In an Associated Press story, a recently hired high-school principal resigned after student reporters investigated her credentials. The new principal had received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Corllins University, an unaccredited, online school.

Supt. Destry Brown praised the student reporters, saying, “I appreciate that our kids ask questions and don’t just accept something because somebody told them.” He told the Pittsburg Morning Sun they “did a great job with the research.”

This is an example of student journalists being allowed to research and publish top-notch work, yet stories still abound across the United States of superintendents and/or principals who remove stories that are just as accurate as the Kansas article because they’re embarrassing.

Nevada students had press champions looking after their rights to report the news in a fair, accurate manner.

Our professional journalists know the media — specifically the mainstream media — have been under fire, but the attacks on any legitimate editors or reporters is an assault on any journalist, whether they write for the New York Times, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Nevada Appeal, Lahontan Valley News or the Greenwave Flash.

For student journalists, though, we must continually ensure the courts, state lawmakers and especially school administrators recognize the importance of a free press at any level of publication. SB 420, like other New Voices legislation passed in more than a dozen states, now affords students the ability to “tell the news as it is,” not how an administrator wants it spun.

Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News in Fallon, Nev., and is president of the International Society of Weekly Newspapers, past president of the Nevada Press Association and former high-school newspaper and yearbook adviser.


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