Column: Stop forcing high school students to passively accept censorship

Stopping creativity inhibits development of personal potential

Column%3A+Stop+forcing+high+school+students+to+passively+accept+censorship

MICHAEL GIUSTI

Maybe it is because I am a journalist by trade, but I have never in my adult life questioned the worth and importance of the First Amendment.

But to my surprise, many young adults apparently don’t share my steadfast reverence for this absolute freedom of speech. That has been made clear by recent studies looking into the millennial generation’s attitudes toward press freedom.

According to a study sponsored by the First Amendment Center, 47 percent of Americans between 18 and 30 years old believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in protecting their rights to free speech.

Another study, released by the Student Press Law Center in Februrary 2014, shows an even more disturbing trend: nearly half of all administrators at the nation’s top high school newspapers censor the work of their student journalists.

The worst part of this study is that it only looked at the nation’s elite high school newspapers – the best and most robust ones, and the ones least likely to need stringent oversight. The study’s authors speculate that the actual rate of censorship at the high school level is much higher than the 42 percent number their study suggests.

And let’s be clear about something here – the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1969 in the so-called “Tinker” case that high schools should not stifle the free speech of their students and that high school students keep their First Amendment rights, despite the fact that they are in school.

And yet, any of you who remember just a few days in a high school will likely be laughing right about now. “High School students given the freedom of speech? Hah!” you might say.

Yes, some more recent Supreme Court cases, such as the infamous “Hazelwood” decision have given schools

the right to censor high school newspapers. But nothing says that they should do it.

So, why does it matter? Why do I even care?

Well, first, raising school children in an environment where censorship is not just a possibility, but rather the rule of the day, has already begun to eat into our nation’s love for free speech. Half of you guys think it goes too far after all.

So what? Well, another study shows the damaging repercussions of not rabidly protecting the freedom of speech. According to a 2014 study released by Reporters Without Borders, the United

States is number 46 in the world – out

of 180 – in terms of the amount of press freedom enjoyed by its citizens.

Yes, the land of the free is behind Botswana and Ghana when it comes to our press freedom.

Sure, some people criticize that survey for some of its methodology, but the solidly middle-of-the-pack ranking is still telling. And if you open up the study and look at the reason why the U.S. ranks so low, you will begin to realize that losing the freedom of the press is not just an academic concern.

Americans are looking at some very scary realities today: jailed whistleblowers, seized reporter’s records, cases of reporter intimidation and judicial gag orders, just to name a few.

So, what does the erosion of press freedom and a lack of respect of the First Amendment have to do with student journalists?

Well, if you are beating students into compliance and submission when they are in the classroom, how can you expect them to then graduate and think independently and engage their community and participate in its governance later?

You can’t raise students in an oppressive, authoritarian environment, and then expect them to embrace freedom and liberty when they graduate.

We brought this civic crime upon ourselves, and it began with administrators playing a heavy hand with student journalists.

High school principals should be ashamed of themselves. If they took a second to step back and look at the big picture implications of their actions, they would see the truly profound damage that administrative meddling can do. Administrators who censor student journalists are committing a crime against the very spirit of our democracy. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, they are hurting America.

Having administrators looking over the shoulders of student journalists is just as inappropriate as having the Obama administration getting final say over what the New York Times is going to print.

Newspapers serve as a check and a window into the workings of administrations and provide a civic duty – even student newspapers.

Sure, student journalists make mistakes. And sure, the press is a powerful instrument. But every news outlet makes mistakes. The proper approach to this challenge is education and critique, not censorship.

Sure, the work of student journalists

can be viewed by people across the

world through Internet capability; that is, in fact, the rationale behind most of the censorship. We wouldn’t want someone to publish something that would make us look bad, now would we?

But guess what… that ship has long sailed. With Facebook, Twitter and every other social media platform springing up like mushrooms, controlling the public perception through oppression is a quixotic quest at best. Instead, all we accomplish is beating our best and brightest and most civically-minded students into a mindset of lamb-like submission.

Mistakes happen. That is part of the educational process. But censoring student journalists and stifling the topics on which they can report is not the answer.

No, censoring student journalism is morally and educationally bankrupt.

You would never do a chemistry student’s experiments for them and then hope that they would graduate as a competent chemist. You would never perform target practice on behalf of a police academy cadet, and then expect them to graduate as a sharp shooter.

No, as an educator, you must realize that mistakes happen, and you must let them learn from the process, even if that means something blows up in the short run.

Newspaper advisers should teach, guide and advise, not create, edit and decide. Likewise, administrators should hire competent advisers and educators, and trust that their own system of education works, rather than oppress and stifle.

If administrators can’t trust that their own system of education will result in qualified and competent students, what does that say?

 Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. I couldn’t agree more.

And I hope that it isn’t too late to convince a few Millennials that the Freedom of Speech is something worth fighting for.

Michael Guisti can be reached at [email protected]

A Los Angeles resident reads the new daily paper the Los Angeles Register while at Union Station in California on Wednesday, April 16. Freedom Communications Inc. launched the Los Angeles Register as a direct challenge to the Los Angeles Times. The 2014 World Press Freedom Index reported that the out of 180 countries analyzed, the U.S. ranks 46, just behind Trinidad and Botswana, in press freedom and security. (RICHARD VOGEL / The Associated Press)