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Why press freedom is your freedom
03:23 - Source: CNNMoney

Editor’s Note: Neha Madhira is a senior at Prosper High School. After speaking out against the censorship of her student newspaper, she became a leader for the New Voices legislative movement in Texas. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Too often, people who stifle student voices fear what they have to say. I know. I’ve lived it.

Last year, my high school newspaper staff was scrutinized, three of our stories were censored, all print editorials were banned and our journalism adviser’s contract was not renewed. And it appears it was all because our administrators valued the image of the school over the truth.

For background, our first story was a news article about the cancellation of a senior movie day. The second piece was an editorial about the removal of “A Separate Peace” from the sophomore reading curriculum, after a parent complained about the gay undertones in the book. And the third was an editorial about a failed team-bonding activity our student body had tried to organize on National Walkout Day, a nationwide event organized to protest gun violence.

Neha Madhira

The stories in question were all censored because our principal told me and my adviser that they “cast the school in a bad light,” were not “positive or uplifting” and failed to reflect the “voice of all 3,000 students.” When asked to respond on the circumstances of our adviser’s dismissal, the administration declined to comment.

After another staff member and I spoke out at the end of the school year, we received an outpouring of support nationwide. Numerous media outlets, including The New York Times and the Women’s Media Center, picked up our story. So compelling was our fight against censorship that it became the topic of the TED Talk we gave six months later. We would not be silenced.

And, after a small media blitz, our principal eventually overturned his strict ban on editorials and allowed us to begin publishing them again.

But our story highlights a much larger issue. Since students – from elementary school through college – have so little legal protection from this kind of censorship, student media staffs seeking to get their stories out use the court of public opinion, often through local media like we did, or by housing their stories on publishing platforms like Issuu to put pressure on their administrators.

However, not all student journalists feel so empowered. Instead, they end up self-censoring or dropping their potentially controversial stories out of fear of retaliation – against them personally or against their faculty adviser.

This harsh reality exists in 36 states because of the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court ruling, which states administrators can censor school-sponsored publications if they have “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Since those concerns were not specified, administrators can use this power to censor almost anything they do not want student media staffs to publish.

Only 14 states have protections for students (and in some cases, for advisers) because of the legislation that New Voices has been pushing for several decades. For background, New Voices is a student-led, grassroots, bipartisan movement aimed at protecting student journalists from being censored for unjustified reasons.

Essentially, New Voices protects student journalists’ rights by bringing back the Tinker v. Des Moines standard that neither teachers nor students shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. And while Hazelwood did not overturn Tinker, it has been used to curb the rights guaranteed by Tinker. New Voices clearly defines what those rights are and how they can coexist with established Supreme Court precedent. This legislation also protects administrators from community members who pressure them into censoring.

We need those protections in Texas, which is why I am helping to spearhead the movement in my home state and why I’m lobbying in Austin this month. Our bill currently has a sponsor on the Senate side – Sen. José Rodríguez, as well as the House side – Rep. Mary Gonzalez, and we are preparing for a hearing conducted by the Texas Education Committee (which will hopefully be held in April).

But I haven’t been doing this alone. The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit organization that supports and defends the rights of student journalists – and has been a critical partner in this process. Because of their work, students and advisers have led New Voices bills to pass in California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Oregon, North Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Vermont, Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington.

With growing support, SPLC, Newseum and other organizations founded an impact fund and announced 2019 as the “Year of the Student Journalist.” There are now 11 states that have (or will soon have) active campaigns for New Voices – a record number of states to take on the initiative in one year.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the legislation is that passing it would make student publications a free-for-all. This is not the case. Students would still have to practice editorial fairness and ethics when it comes to their reporting. Frank LoMonte, senior legal fellow at SPLC, told me that out of the 14 states that have passed the bill, there has not been a single case where anyone has sued a high school alleging libel, invasion of privacy or any other wrong.

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    The reporting that student journalists do for their communities is vital – and administrators have an obligation to communicate with students in addressing any legitimate concerns they may have. If you need proof of the value of student journalism, look no further than Pittsburgh High School, where the newspaper staff investigated their principal and uncovered that she did not have a master’s degree or a doctorate degree from an actual university. She resigned shortly afterward.

    More importantly, though, school administrators should want to work with students to foster good relationships and prevent the spread of misinformation. After all, education is all about teaching students how to use critical thinking skills. And journalism is about putting those skills into practice. When student media publications seek the truth and make their own editorial decisions, they utilize the very skills that our education system is built on.

    I welcome this opportunity to publish here with, but the opportunity I want most is to express myself on, the student voice of Prosper High School.