In a 2015 article surveying the landscape of Chicago public schools, the Chicago Tribune lamented: “In an era of tight school budgets, high-stakes testing and changing news consumption habits, the once time-honored tradition of offering students the chance to be newspaper reporters has joined the list of school activities becoming obsolete for today’s students. Newspapers are forced to scale back, move online to save printing costs—and often eventually dry up.” A reporter who informally surveyed Brooklyn, New York, high schools in 2019 found that just one-eighth offered any opportunity for students to participate in journalism—in a city renowned as an international media capital.
Diminishing opportunities for students to gather and share news in an environment that offers training and guidance should be a matter of civic urgency. Young people’s news consumption habits are alarmingly sparse. A July 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, taken during the run-up to a high-stakes national election, found that just 21 percent of Americans under 30 rely primarily on a news organization’s app or website to get their political news, while 49 percent rely primarily on social media—and that people whose information primarily comes from social feeds are less attentive to news developments. Kindling an appetite for news in young citizens-in-training is an assignment on which schools are increasingly earning failing grades.
Student Newsrooms: The Community’s Information Lifeline
While “high school newspaper” is colloquially used as a shorthand for “trivial,” today’s student-run newsrooms—where they exist—are creating sophisticated content rivaling that of traditional community newspapers. Students in Burlington, Vermont, were credited with breaking the news of a state investigation into misconduct allegations against a high school counselor that ended with the revocation of his license. In Athens, Georgia, student reporters found that a newly appointed school board member had exaggerated his qualifications and was raising money to run for a congressional seat he was ineligible to hold, leading him to abandon the campaign. This type of watchdog reporting on public education, which spends $750 billion in taxpayer dollars, is more essential than ever with the erosion of mainstream local news organizations.
More than one-fifth of all U.S. newspapers have gone out of business since 2004, and the lingering COVID-19 pandemic is only worsening decades of decline in life-sustaining advertising revenue. Although a handful of national outlets are prospering, Pew research indicates that, overall, newspaper subscribership hit modern-day lows in 2020, with just 24.3 million print and digital subscribers nationally, a drop of more than 60 percent since 1990. A University of North Carolina researcher calculates that 2,000 of the nation’s 3,143 counties no longer are served by a daily newspaper and are at risk of becoming “news deserts.”
Young people use journalistic vehicles to call attention to issues of uniquely intense interest to a peer audience, issues that might be ignored by mainstream professional media. In the Philadelphia suburb of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a succession of student editors at Neshaminy High School stirred community awareness about the offensiveness of their school’s longstanding mascot (the “Redskins”), leading to an inquest by the state Human Relations Commission into whether the pervasive use of the term and imagery constituted unlawful discrimination. One of those editors, Grace Marion, won a national First Amendment award for exposing the school’s corrupt practice of covering up sexual misconduct complaints against teachers by placing those complaints into the confidential files of the student complainants rather than the employees’ concealing the documents from public scrutiny (and from unwary future employers).
Scholastic journalism does not just benefit the community; it has real and lasting benefits for the participants as well. The leading academic expert on the subject, University of Kansas Professor Piotr Bobkowski, has found that students who attend schools where First Amendment values are respected report a higher level of “civic efficacy”—the ability to use their voices to make civic change—than students whose schools practice censorship.
The First Amendment on Training Wheels
One reason that fewer and fewer students exhibit an interest in pursuing journalism is the heavy hand of censorship that prevents them from addressing issues of public concern. A 2016 survey of 461 high school journalists across North Carolina found that 38 percent of them had been told that particular sensitive topics were categorically off limits for discussion in student media outlets. The most identified taboo topics were (1) the legalization of marijuana and (2) LGBTQ concerns. The same survey found that students had been so thoroughly conditioned by institutional censorship that they were anticipatorily censoring themselves: 47 percent reported that they had refrained from even attempting a potentially touchy story for fear of adverse reaction from authorities.
This data is reflected in the daily lived experiences of journalism students and teachers around the country. After students at Dallas-area Prosper High School published two opinion columns criticizing school policy decisions, the principal ordered the columns pulled from the web, banned the students from publishing any further opinion columns, and told the newspaper’s award-winning faculty adviser that her contract would not be renewed. A high school principal in Bigelow, Arkansas, ordered pages ripped out of the yearbook because students wrote about police violence against African Americans and other contemporary social and political issues.
Outside of school, the First Amendment rigorously protects speech addressing matters of public concern and constrains the ability of government regulators to prevent speech or punish speakers based on content or viewpoint. But within the confines of government-controlled institutions—schools, prisons, jails, the workplace—free speech rights diminish in deference to the government’s need to maintain orderly operations.
Students have robust free speech protections, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker ruling, which recognized the right to wear anti-war armbands—even on school grounds during class time—so long as the protest did not “materially” or “substantially” disrupt school functions. But in its 1988 newspaper-censorship case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Court gave schools far greater censorship authority when students are using a “forum” for speech that is part of the school’s curricular offerings, which might suggest official school endorsement of the speakers’ message. Hazelwood provides that speech in a school-provided curricular “forum” may be freely censored so long as the school’s motivation is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” a near-insurmountable level of judicial deference.
A Path Forward: Respecting New Voices
The Hazelwood standard represents a judicially sanctioned floor for student press freedom. But it is not the ceiling. A more educationally responsible approach not only is possible but is increasingly popular. Fourteen states have enacted statutes known as “New Voices” laws that restore the balanced Tinker level of First Amendment protection to student news publications, forsaking the Hazelwood level of near-total control. A New Voices bill overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the New Jersey legislature in 2021, leaving just the governor’s signature to make the Garden State the 15th to guarantee students a modicum of statutorily protected editorial discretion. Schools may still step in if news publications threaten to incite violence or otherwise disrupt school operations, but, short of a foreseeable disruption, students get to make their own news judgments, even if they criticize the school or expose its shortcomings. In a 2017 House of Delegates resolution, the American Bar Association encouraged schools to provide uncensored vehicles for students to publish their ideas about issues of public importance: “Meaningful civic education requires that students feel safe and empowered to discuss issues of social and political concern in the responsible, accountable forum of journalistic media.”
Journalism in schools is one of America’s great civic bargains. With the ubiquity of online publishing and low-cost web hosting, a student publication might cost as little as $500 a year to distribute—while building the desktop publishing skills that students will use across a wide variety of future careers, even those far distanced from the newsroom. While experiences such as Model United Nations or Model Legislature provide students with a simulation of civic participation, the authenticity of actual participation through news coverage is unique and irreplaceable. There is nothing “mock” or “model” about the experience of reporting news from a county school board meeting to inform the larger community.
A great deal of attention and funding has been put into “media literacy” and “news literacy” programs, but merely being lectured about bias and fakery is incomplete preparation for a lifetime of “digital citizenship.” Students need opportunities to write, broadcast, and blog about the social and political issues of unique salience to their generation, from gun violence to climate change to racial inequities. Their expression is not only important for self-realization and personal growth but is invaluable “customer service” feedback for education policymakers—if it is heard and valued.
Education policy experts widely recognize the benefits of “student voice,” the active participation of young people in helping direct their own learning. For the 48 million Americans attending public K–12 schools, the school is their “local government,” and input into school governance is—particularly for those too young to vote—their method of engaging in civic life. In a May 2019 report for Education Week, veteran journalist Stephen Sawchuk drew a direct line between effective teaching of constitutional principles and actually exhibiting those principles in school governance. As Sawchuk wrote: “Compulsory K–12 schooling itself makes up the most intensive interaction the average American will have with a civic institution—far outpacing the time spent filling in a ballot, sitting in a jury box, or waiting in line at the DMV.” The newsroom offers a stark and high-stakes directional choice: Will schools practice the constitutional values they aspire to teach?
Young people are hardly deprived of opportunities to share their ideas online. The proliferation of social platforms might seemingly make student journalism feel as “last century” as square-dancing lessons. But when students learn the skills and values of journalism in the classroom, they become more careful—and more effective—communicators. They learn the importance of balance, attribution, and verification. They learn to respect copyright ownership and defamation laws and consider the legal and ethical implications of disclosing private information. Few of them will end up being professional journalists, but all of them will end up being online publishers—and civic actors. In the words of Neha Madhira, a censored Texas high school editor turned press-freedom activist, “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.”