New Voices aim: expand protection in New Jersey
By Holly Johnson and Tom McHale
Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, but these days we see legitimate news organizations being called liars on the one hand, and shadowy organizations spreading fake news stories on the other. We need a generation of citizens with a heightened aptitude for telling the difference between fact and fiction. Our democracy depends on it, and those of us who teach journalism to the next generation are doing all we can to ensure our students have that capacity. Our lessons emphasize research, fact checking, ethics and professionalism.
Student journalists who are trusted to make editorial decisions about what their readers need and want to know, and how best to handle controversial topics, develop a capacity to communicate effectively and to think critically. They foster a culture of civic discourse amongst their peers.
Unfortunately, many administrators, worried about the image of their school, have opted to exert editorial control over student newspapers. While their intentions may be good–to cast the school in the most favorable light, to ensure students don’t read about topics that may seem too sensitive for some–the results are often calamitous for all involved. The pedagogical process is undermined, and the administrators open themselves up to criticism from all quarters.
When administrators act as editors, speech is chilled; students learn to self-censor rather than exercise their constitutional rights responsibly. The result? Students lose an opportunity to develop into the ethical, inquisitive citizens their administrators had hoped to nurture.
In a recent interview, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said: “Right now if a student in New Jersey asks me if they are safe from punishment for writing an article critical of the school, I would have to tell them they are not.” According to LoMonte, the SPLC fields more calls from student journalists facing censorship in New Jersey than from any other state.
The need for stronger First Amendment protections for students came as a result of the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Reversing the Tinker precedent that had stood for 20 years–which said students did not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate–the Hazelwood ruling enabled administrators to exert significant control over the content of school-sponsored publications.
Many administrators recognized censorship as a slippery slope and left their student publications alone. But over time, as external pressures mounted, many schools succumbed to the temptation to censor student speech. The problem with censorship is that no one knows where to stop. Should the students be writing about abortion? What about drunk driving or the kid in class who swore at the teacher? Can we let them criticize the cafeteria food?
In New Jersey, the Hazelwood decision has been used to justify the censorship of a newspaper column criticizing students for smoking in the bathroom at Pemberton High School. The same happened with a news story about a dispute between a superintendent and supervisor that was made public at a Northern Highlands Board of Education meeting. Both of these incidents resulted in the removal of the newspaper advisers.
The problem doesn’t end at the high school level, either. At one NJ community, college students ran several editorial cartoons poking fun at changes made by the new college president, including an updated school logo. It was supposed to look like a wave; the students thought it looked like a sperm. The paper was admonished, and their adviser removed.
College publications have found their budgets cut in apparent retaliation for student reporting. Administrators have ordered copies of newspapers be pulled from racks and dumped in the trash to keep people from reading what students have written.
Fortunately, something is being done to address this problem.
The New Voices of New Jersey protects the constitutional rights of student journalists and protects the advisers who teach and support them from retaliation. The goal of this grassroots effort by students, parents, educators, professional journalists and constitutional lawyers is to re-establish a culture of trust and transparency between administrators and student journalists.
Last year identical New Voices bills were introduced in the New Jersey state senate and assembly with bipartisan sponsorship. Assemblyman Troy Singleton and Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus introduced bill A4028, and Senators Diane Allen and Nia Gill introduced bill S2506.
New Jersey needs to follow the lead of states like North Dakota, Illinois, and Maryland by letting Bills A4028 and S2506 be heard in their education committees and then proceed to the senate and assembly floors for a ratification.
We ask you to contact your legislative representatives and tell them to vote in favor of the New Voices bills. Call their offices or send them a card. It is vital to let legislators know they have the support of their constituents.
By taking action, you ensure New Jersey’s students can become the active, ethical citizens that our country needs now more than ever.
Holly Johnson is a newspaper co-advisor and professor of English and New Media at Mercer County Community College in Trenton, New Jersey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom McHale is a teacher of English and Journalism at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey. He can be reached at email@example.com