Maryland Debates on Student Press Freedom

By tori Venable
Elm Staff Writer

Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. It must provide a forum of public criticism and compromise. Its first loyalty is to citizens. These are a few of the elements of journalism, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Each of these standards are blurred, bent, and violated when bodies of authority censor the work of journalists.
That is the problem that Senate Bill 764, colloquially named the “New Voices Act,” in the Maryland General Assembly is aiming to address. Sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin, New Voices would grant high school and college student journalists the ability to exercise freedom of speech and press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the school district financially supports the media.
Sen. Raskin has been an advocate for free press throughout his time in the Marylang General Assembly and even served as the editor of his high school paper, according to The Baltimore Sun. He voiced his concerns that current levels of protection in public school journalism do not allow the students to act as watchdogs, as journalists should. He hopes that with the passage of this legislation, Maryland can restore the Tinker standard in Maryland, referring to the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, which defined the constitutional rights of students in US public schools and gave students the right to free speech and free expression, unless school officials can clearly demonstrate the speech will result in “a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities or invade the rights of others.”
The Senate Bill was heard in the Senate Education, Health and Environment Affairs committee hearing on March 2 and, while no one testified in opposition, three advocates in support of the bill joined Sen. Raskin in testimony. Rebecca Snyder of the Press Association used this venue to express that student journalism is a vital component of civic engagement and limiting the press rights of students is a “workforce development issue.” She went on to explain how students who are discouraged from writing for school newspapers because of censorship will move their voices to other unstructured venues that do not provide accountability or professional journalism skills.
This is a concern brought up by the sponsor of the bill, who claims that without the proper avenue available, students will resort to depending on online interactions to voice their opinions or stories. “By standing up for greater freedom in schools, we’ll be standing up for greater responsibility and a better dialogue between young people and their teachers and their journalism advisers when we invite [the speech] back into the school context rather than the wild west of the internet,” he said.
Snyder continued to outline her concerns about the fate of the journalism field without due protections provided to students. “High school students are the journalists of tomorrow, and with the current state of affairs, students are taught not to question authority, not to probe deep into sensitive topics, not to engage in a clear dialogue that has strong journalistic ethical standards.” This is an issue that played out on a Maryland college campus earlier this year.

 Staff writer Tori Venable examines press freedom constraints on student press organizations.

Staff writer Tori Venable examines press freedom constraints on student press organizations.

Mount Saint Mary’s University, a private Catholic university in western Maryland was the center of a national story when the school paper The Mountain Echo, published a chain of emails and conversations about controversial freshman-retention plans that subsequently shined unflattering light on the new university president.  Immediately following the publication and the national attention, college President Simon P. Newman fired the newspaper’s faculty adviser in a transparent act of retaliation. While the students were not disciplined for their reporting, according to the Frederick News Post, the school newspaper had to temporarily suspend publication as a result of lost faculty.
Although the senate bill would not have prevented the events on Mount Saint Mary University’s campus, as it is a private institution, it is a necessary step for public schools, universities, and colleges, in order to protect the journalistic integrity in educational institutions.
Karen Houppert, who serves as the editor of the Baltimore City Paper, asserted that these protections are still necessary even at the college and university level, describing her experiences as the faculty adviser for Morgan State’s student paper. She recounted how difficult it was for her to successfully encourage her students to challenge the authority and administrative persons on campus when investigating sexual assault cases and reporting because they were fearful of administrative retaliation.
Consistent with that frame of thought, The Baltimore Sun reported that students need protective state laws as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s debated 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which effectively gave schools a free pass of censorship authority under the justification that school papers were not “public forums.”
Though there was no opposing testimony at the hearing, the committee members asked skeptical questions of the affirmative panel. Members brought up the opposing view that a school-sponsored student newspaper is essentially a government publication that could be censored under justification of the source of funding. In response, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said, “Although the government pays for this building and the electricity and this microphone and this table, it would be regarded as a violation of the First Amendment if the [committee] chair was to say, ‘Please only say positive things about the state government into the microphone. If we catch you criticizing the state government, we’ll disconnect you and turn the power off and have you removed,’” he said. “But that’s what’s going on in school districts today.”
If Maryland were to pass this piece of legislation, it would join 10 other states that have enacted New Voices protections and move toward a state full of public schools that respect student voices and produce civically engaged graduates. If we do not protect our students from sweeping, interest-driven censorship, we are giving them a disadvantage before they reach adulthood, teaching them not to question authority or think critically about their environment. Not passing the New Voices Act would be an act of support for censorship and, as LoMonte alleged, an “educational malpractice.”
For more information about the New Voices Act, go to the MGA website: http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/webmga/frmMain.aspx?id=sb0764&stab=01&pid=billpage&tab=subject3&ys=2016RS

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