The Right to Write

Image courtesy of the New Voices of New Hampshire Facebook page.

“Know your rights!” has been plastered across protest signs and repeated in social studies classes for as long as I can remember. But what does it mean for students? A typical student retains most of their First Amendment rights when they walk into the building. Unfortunately, for student journalists and participants in school-sponsored activities, the First Amendment isn’t a right; it’s a privilege. 


Legally, schools reserve the right to censor all school-sponsored student speech, which usually means school newspapers. Allowing schools to censor student publications blocks students from publishing articles that start meaningful conversations about topics that impact students. Censorship also prevents them from fully doing the job that they set out to do; we’ve been picking up the slack as local newspapers go out of business and we’ve earned the right to free press. 


To ensure that no New Hampshire students experience this censorship, I’ve been working with an NH chapter of student journalists to make New Voices legislation a reality in NH. New Voices would protect student journalists from censorship by their schools. It’s imperative that New Voices finds its way to the House floor and passes so that students can write stories that matter, not just stories that their administration wants them to tell.  


Hannah Riseman (‘20) is the Editor in Chief of The CavChron, the student newspaper at Hollis Brookline High School. Riseman started the NH chapter of New Voices at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and is continuously working to involve members of the student journalism community in the cause. She explained why she feels so strongly about working towards passing New Voices. “I think for me it really goes back to the court cases. You have Tinker v. Des Moines and in that case you have the ruling that students’ First Amendment rights don’t stop at schoolhouse gates. That, for me, was really powerful because I genuinely believe that there is no age restriction on The Constitution; students shouldn’t have their rights taken away just because they’re in school,” Riseman said. 


In 1987 the staff of The Spectrum, the student newspaper at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri, tried to publish two stories that the school administration deemed inappropriate for teenagers. One story was about teenage pregnancy and the other was about divorce. The students sued the school for violating their First Amendment rights and eventually lost when the Supreme Court ruled that schools censoring student speech in school-sponsored platforms were not infringing on students’ First Amendment rights. According to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), there’s an exception for publications that are “public forums” or “designated forums” for student expression; this includes officially designated forums and publications that have operated without the interference of the school. Basically, a student publication that’s run completely by students without a history of administrative involvement can fight censorship by identifying themselves as a public forum. 


 Under the Hazelwood standard, schools have the right to prior review of student publications and the ability to prevent students from publishing anything they deem inconsistent with their “basic educational mission.”  The idea that teenage pregnancy and divorce aren’t appropriate for teenagers is absurd when the stories were written by teenagers about issues that affect teens, as most censored stories are.


In short, if a school decides that a story you’ve written clashes with the image they want to present to the public or their idea of what’s age appropriate, they can stop you from publishing it. This issue is most commonly discussed in the context of student journalism, however, “school sponsored speech” also includes the yearbook, events and speeches by student government, and any other speech on behalf of a school sponsored club or activity. 

New Voices legislation would protect the rights of student journalists by returning to the Tinker v. Des Moines standard for all students, as it already does in fourteen states. The Tinker standard ensures that students maintain their First Amendment rights in school so long as it doesn’t disrupt learning. Under the Tinker standard, student journalists would be expected to uphold the same journalistic integrity as commercial newspapers, they just wouldn’t be able to publish untrue or unduly critical articles. 


“When we have stories that could make a huge impact on the student body and the community and those stories are censored for reasons that are very subjective and are completely about adults being uncomfortable, that’s something that’s really bothersome to me,” said Hillary Davis, the New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer for the SPLC. Her job is to help students and advisors navigate the legislative world to get New Voices legislation through the House in each state. 


Davis has worked with other students who, like me, want to help with New Voices to restore their First Amendment right to free press. She said, “for the vast majority of kids involved in something like this it’s all about being able to tell the truth and being able to keep their communities informed, which is a really critical and important thing for the student body, for the school community, and the community as a whole.”


Student journalism and the right to free press is now more important than ever. “As local papers have less and less funding, student media is playing an even larger role in the community. The work students are doing is important now for themselves, for their peers, for their neighbors, for their whole community,” said Davis.


Riseman made a similar point. “Student journalists are starting to take the place of some regional places as smaller presses are failing and we’ve collectively been stepping up. This not only proves that students can take on the kind of journalistic challenges that even adults faces, but it also emphasizes, to me, the fact that our rights do belong to us and it’s not fair to take them away especially when we’ve proven that we can and should have freedom of the press.”


Many who oppose New Voices legislation claim that as a sponsor, the school should have the right to editorialize. Yet, by this logic, the federal government should, as a partial sponsor, have the right to editorialize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which includes, but is not limited to, the National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS). In “Public Television,” an article by Gina Logue for The First Amendment Encyclopedia, we can find it’s established through a series of precedents that the federal government has no such rights.  


 If you’re not going to limit the rights of all publications that receive money from the government, why would you limit the rights of student publications? As Riseman said, The Constitution doesn’t come with an age restriction to determine whether you have the right to free press. 


This particular freedom would help students to have a more complete educational experience. “One of the goals of education is to make sure that we have a student body that goes out into the world ready to think critically, ready to stand up for the things that they think are right, ready to fight for truth and justice, and all of that. When they are told that they should censor themselves, or when they are told that what they think is important isn’t really important, that’s bad for everybody,” said Davis. 


Mouth of the River is lucky to have a supportive administration that has rarely censored us, but the ability to cover important topics shouldn’t be left to luck. We have had the opportunity to cover a variety of topics that at other schools could easily have been deemed inappropriate. Among these was a story Devan McClain co-wrote with Lydia Hoffman in 2017, “Smokescreen: Why Students Juul,” and the follow-up story by McClain, “Juuling: Still a Problem One Year Later.”


This story is memorable because before it was published, student juuling was not a widely understood or discussed issue. McClain said that she chose to write it because “we saw the need to inform people about a relatively new issue that seemed prevalent at Oyster River High School. The intent was never to call anybody out for choosing to Juul, nor was it to blame administration for a lack of policy concerning Juuling. We simply saw a lot of questions and missing information surrounding vaping in general, and we wanted to gather the facts to create a resource that would address some of the uncertainties.” McClain took the opportunity we were given and used it to educate the community about a topic that they were almost completely blind to, but that she, as a student at the high school, saw with perfect clarity. She, like most student journalists, wasn’t interested in abusing her power, just in spreading reputable information.


After the article was published, McClain noticed the start of administrative changes to the way vaping was addressed, specifically, signs about underage vaping were put up and bathroom monitoring became more common. McClain said, “these changes took some time, however, which could be due to the fact that while we were collecting initial interviews it became apparent that staff members were fairly unaware of the extent of the problem. In fairness, though, I was able to gain insight about how big of an issue Juuling was because I was a member of the student body myself, as opposed to just looking in from an administrative role.”


As a student journalist at a school that was open to supporting her, McClain was able to publish an article that helped make everyone in the community more aware and ready to address an issue that deeply impacts high schoolers. The students also recognized that McClain’s article was partly responsible for the change in attitude toward vaping. McClain remembers receiving nasty messages on social media, having the article ripped out of the magazine and stuffed in her locker, and an incident in which a classmate interrupted class to call her a snitch. She said, “as a writer, I was glad to see that I had covered an issue that was clearly affecting the ORHS community, but as a student, I felt pretty isolated from a lot of my friends.”


McClain proved that she was willing to take on a tough story and face social consequences in her mission to inform the community. She’s just one example of many student journalists across the state who’ve covered difficult stories. Students like her have shown the world that student journalists will not abuse the right to free press; they will use it to talk about issues that impact students. We need your support to ensure that we can continue to do what needs to be done to keep the community informed. 
In 2018, Anna Kate Munsey wrote a very similar op-ed about New Voices legislation for MOR, which you can find here. It’s been two years. Eight other states have passed some form of New Voices legislation, and NH still hasn’t had a movement gain enough traction to get a bill on the House floor. To do that we need to find as many people willing to support us as possible. So please, share this article, reach out to the NH New Voices chapter on Facebook, or tell your local congressman. We need you to use your voice to help protect ours.