OPINION: Extend the Right to a Free Press to Student Journalists

by Robbie Maher, St. Albans

The rights of a free press are questioned daily in tweets and from the podium in the White House briefing room.

Concern about First Amendment rights is nothing new inside the halls of public high schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that various constitutional rights give way to public school administrators’ orders about safety and ‘appropriateness.’

Court rulings on the First Amendment guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” have trended against high school newspapers for decades.

Vermont now has a chance to reverse that trend and join more than a dozen other states that have approved or are about to approve legislation that allows free speech to return to schools. The Senate has now passed S. 18 — a bill that would allow for “student journalist(s) (to) exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored media.” The House will now consider S. 18.

The Hazelwood case began in 1983 when, according to a news report, the principal of a St. Louis high school deleted articles on sex and relationships from the student newspaper. Three students filed suit, asserting violation of their First Amendment rights.

The principal of this school deemed both articles to be inappropriate and not protective enough of students’ rights to privacy and prevented them from being published.

Uhlig reported, “In their lawsuit, three student journalists … argued that Dr. Reynolds had interfered with the newspaper’s function as a ‘public forum.’ School officials argued that the newspaper, as an extension of classroom instruction, did not enjoy First Amendment protections.”

The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the principal 5-3, and stated school administrators could censor an article if it proved “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”

This is madness! Anybody can have the opinion that something is poorly written. This ruling gives school officials the ability to act like bouncers and decide what can and what doesn’t get in to a high school newspaper. This is not journalism; that’s public relations…

During my two years as editor of the Bellows Free Academy Mercury in St. Albans, I have covered challenging topics that include school administrators receiving substantial pay increases when numerous teachers were cut from the budget, the Black Lives Matter group protesting outside BFA, the BFA school board’s concern that Missisquoi Valley Union had higher test scores — and the list goes on and on.

After working hard with the paper’s adviser, Peter Riegelman, and having successfully covered these issues, it is troubling to hear that my school administrators could have blocked these stories. However, recognizing the importance of the student press, BFA Principal Chris Mosca chose not to.

Burlington High School is a school that has been censored over a story that involved a Trump supporter being harassed. By the administration censoring the story and requesting prior review for the foreseeable future, the school is suppressing a legitimate issue that is not going away.

Journalism students today should not be concerned with whether their feature story will be censored by their school’s hierarchy. Instead, students should learn and practice skills that make a journalist successful.

Thankfully, S. 18 states nothing shall “prevent a student media adviser from teaching professional standards of English and journalism to student journalists.” S.18 needs the support of parents, professional journalists and the voters so that it is passed and student journalists are able to experience the free and full responsibilities that the First Amendment protects in our nation.

The author is editor and marketing director of the BFA Mercury in St. Albans.

Note: Edited for length