Promoting Student Press Freedom – The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle
The First Amendment provides crucial protections for student journalists. The right of students to speak freely and share relevant information and views with their communities is a priority and has been protected for decades. Many court rulings side with students, affirming their right to free speech, and fourteen states have passed “New Voices” laws that further protect student journalists as members of the press. No matter how controversial an article may be or how damaging to an institution’s reputation, the right of students to publish an article is enshrined in our country’s most important legal document: its Constitution.
However, unlike most constitutional rights, freedom of the student press is not available to all Americans. Students working for publications in private and independent schools enjoy no legal protection against censorship or punitive action; as such, we are beholden to the will and policies of our school administrations.
Some of these policies greatly limit or completely eliminate schools’ abilities to censor students, but the right of administrations to step in and restrict student-generated content is always a concern for independent school newspapers. At our school, students who write controversial articles are more at risk than having to remove content from The Chronicle’s website, which happened once this year. In a previous year, a faculty member attempted to send a student to honor board after reading a Chronicle article that he felt was damaging to the reputation of the school and the students.
The Chronicle is always open to conversations and reviews of the content we publish. As a student-run journal, we know we are constantly learning and strive to incorporate dissenting voices by publishing corrections and letters to the editor. We want to make sure that everything we publish is ethically journalistic, but we deserve the right to make choices without fear of censorship or potential punishment. This perspective is reflected in the journalism policies of other independent schools with award-winning student newspapers, including The Oracle at The Archer School for Girls, The Phillippian at Phillips Academy Andover, and The Pen at Peninsula High School, among others. All administrations of these schools have waived their right to censor content or authorize punitive action against students for their postings. Our school is one of the few high schools in America with a student newspaper of this caliber that does not have press freedom guarantees.
As we transition to Volume 32 of The Chronicle in the fall and hire Billy Montgomery as our new Chronicle Advisor, our freedom to publish factual content is more important than ever. During his six years at the school, Communications Manager Jim Burns has fulfilled his role by always supporting our staff while communicating with the school administration. Its philosophy was guided by the principle of prioritizing the journalistic freedoms of students. He proposed signing a document created by the Private School Journalism Association with the Student Press Law Center this year that would waive the school’s right to take disciplinary action based on journalistic work or to review the newspaper or articles. before publication. This agreement would be a signed commitment to student journalistic freedom of expression, as long as the postings fall within a category of speech protected by the First Amendment. The school chose not to sign him last year.
On Burns’ departure, we can think of no better way to solidify our right to free and honest reporting than to sign this document with the administration. Our school policies have always adhered to our mission statement, which is committed to excellence in education and a purpose beyond ourselves.
Extending these values to student journalism makes more than just sense – it’s vital to our education and a necessary expansion of journalistic freedom.