By Emily Hood
Francis Howell North High School (Missouri)
Quill and Scroll Student Advisory Board
Student journalism has a strong presence in Missouri schools over the past 30 years. At Francis Howell North, we are fortunate to have a supportive adviser and administration that have provided us with the opportunity to tell many meaningful stories to our school community. After a student at our school passed away from a heroin overdose in 2016, our in-depth section of the newspaper profiled the heroin epidemic in Missouri and efforts by the community to help those in need. Because we are lucky to receive First Amendment rights at our school, we were able to provide important material to a grieving community looking to make change.
A high school newsroom is the ideal place for aspiring journalists to learn the ethical values of journalism and get the chance to make an impact in their communities. Freedom of the press allows students to explore and share important stories.
However, in 1988 student journalists were denied full protection under the First Amendment after the Supreme Court decision of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. This decision allows school principals and administration broad power to censor high school publications and restrict what is published to the student body.
Since that decision, 13 states have passed legislation that negates Hazelwood, but most schools in the United States still bear the weight of the Hazelwood decision. Even in states where legislation that overrides Hazelwood is passed, many administrators still use censorship powers illegally on their school publications.
As the country vigilantly watches the media for accuracy, it is essential journalism students are thoroughly trained to provide a full perspective on issues and events. Student journalists need full First Amendment protections in order to accurately and fully report news stories. They can provide their communities with crucial information on a wide range of topics- from depression to the firing of faculty and coaches.
High school journalists are in a unique position where they are able to connect with their peers. Because of their age and knowledge of their audience, they are able to share controversial issues that affect teens on a daily basis such as sex, alcohol, and drug addiction. Under the Hazelwood precedent or states with no Hazelwood protection, a student could discover that many classmates are suffering from drug abuse issues. They could want to write an investigative piece on the effects of drug abuse in their communities and resources available to those who need help. An administrator in many states could legally prevent this piece from being published purely because they fear the idea of bringing up drug addiction in the first place, despite efforts from the student to present the issue in a factual manner.
Because of strong censorship powers given to principals, many high school publications do not even attempt to cover tough topics. There could be teenagers who struggle with substance abuse issues that might have been able to get treatment or stay away from drugs if they had been provided with information quickly and easily from the school newspaper. These stories may reach them in a way that nothing else could.
Censorship not only prevents information from getting to the school community, but it also stops journalists from checking those in power. A great example of journalists checking power is the Pittsburg 6 reporting team from Pittsburg, Kansas. Through their research, the staff members discovered that their new principal had lied about her credentials when applying for the position. Their discoveries forced the school board to hire a new principal. If those students had not been granted First Amendment protection through state legislation and had to go through a prior review process, it is not likely the principal would have allowed the story to be published. Because the students knew their power as journalists, they felt confident in their ability to investigate and report. This is just one example of how important student journalists can aid in the well-being of both their schools and communities.
Putting the responsibility to cover sensitive topics can seem like a daunting task to place upon a 17-year-old student. The ability to make tough decisions in quick moments can be a skill that is developed with age. However, the creation of an editorial policy for a publication allows for a guideline to follow in tricky situations. They outline specific procedures journalists must follow to protect all parties involved in a story. Editorial policies can help ease the worries of administrators and state legislatures. The decisions made by editorial boards can be based on guidelines rather than emotion. Editorial policies help journalists use their First Amendment rights responsibly.
Without First Amendment rights, student journalists are not able to do their jobs effectively and cannot provide their community with vital information about the issues they face. In a time where the media is constantly scrutinized in the public eye, the importance of creating well-rounded, ethical and objective journalists is growing every day. Work created in the high school newsroom can build a foundation of high quality reporting by students that can carry over into strong journalism careers for years to come.