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More than 25 years after the Supreme Court limited First Amendment protections for high school student journalists, a survey of students and media advisers attending a national scholastic journalism convention indicates censorship is a fact of life in many schools. SJW-2014

Of the 5,506 students and teachers who attended the National High School Journalism Convention in Boston, Mass., Nov. 14-17, 2013, 531 students and 69 advisers responded to survey questions asking about their experiences with censorship of student media.

Significant numbers of both students (32 percent) and advisers (39 percent) said school officials had told them not to publish or air something. Thirty-two percent of advisers reported a school official reviews the content of their student news medium before it is published or aired.  And 60 percent of students said someone other than student editors had the final authority to determine the content of the student media they advise.

In addition, 10 percent of advisers said school officials had threatened their position as adviser or their job at the school based on content decisions their students had made.

Student and adviser respondents both indicated self-censorship was an issue they confronted. Thirty-two percent of students and 28 percent of advisers said their staff had decided not to publish something based on the belief that school officials would censor it.

The survey was administered and the results tabulated by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University on behalf of the Student Press Law Center with the support of the convention sponsors, the National Scholastic Press Association and the Journalism Education Association. The results are not intended to represent a random sampling of students nationwide, but are an anecdotal indication of their experiences and those of their advisers. The results were released Feb. 18 in conjunction with Scholastic Journalism Week 2014.

These conventions attract the cream of the crop, the best high school student media organizations in the country,” said Professor Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State. “If almost one-third of these award-winning students are experiencing censorship, we can reasonably expect that the number for all high school student publications in the country is much higher

The respondents to the survey represented students and teachers from 27 states and included those working with newspapers and newsmagazines, yearbooks, websites and television broadcast programs.  More than half of the respondents were from schools with between 1,000 and 2,000 students, but 5 percent were from schools with fewer than 500 students and over one quarter were from schools with more than 2,000 students.

“These conventions attract the cream of the crop, the best high school student media organizations in the country,” said Professor Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State. “If almost one-third of these award-winning students are experiencing censorship, we can reasonably expect that the number for all high school student publications in the country is much higher.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier limited the First Amendment protections afforded public high school student journalists. However, the ruling did not require school officials to censor or to adopt publication policies conforming to the minimal Hazelwood level of protection. Nine states and the District of Columbia have disavowed reliance on Hazelwood by state statute or regulation; a tenth, Illinois, has done so for students at the college level only.

“While it’s sad that any high school principal in the year 2014 still thinks it’s justifiable to censor students’ work, it’s really noteworthy that most high-quality journalism programs are telling us that no administrator is ‘editing’ the news. That tells you that censorship is far from being a ‘state of the art’ practice,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit legal information and advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va.

Last year, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood, the SPLC launched a website and outreach campaign, www.curehazelwood.org, to raise awareness about the destructive impact of Hazelwood-fueled censorship on the learning environment. The site includes information about the case, as well as stories of how Hazelwood has affected young people and tips to help students work to improve the state of their own rights

LoMonte noted that, during the Hazelwood anniversary year, the nation’s three largest groups representing working members of the news media (the Society of Professional Journalists), college journalism educators (the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication) and high school journalism advisers (the Journalism Education Association) all adopted resolutions condemning the use of Hazelwood censorship authority to suppress discussion of issues of student concern. “Student journalism is civic participation in action. When one in 10 teachers are telling us that administrators threatened their jobs just because of the views their students wanted to express, we clearly have to do a better job of training school leaders to recognize the educational value of public debate over school conditions.”

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