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Making a case for press freedom
in private schools

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by Kristin Taylor, CJE
Private school students do not have First Amendment protections, but that doesn’t mean they have no options. In fact, some private high school students enjoy robust press freedom.

I am fortunate to advise a program at a school that has won the First Amendment Press Freedom Award the past two years. At the recent Dallas convention, my editor-in-chief Cybele and I presented a workshop to help students at other private schools make a case to their administrations for press freedom in the hopes more private schools journalism programs will join the list of FAPFA recipients in the future.

If your program is in California or Rhode Island, you should start by looking at your state laws. Unlike most New Voices legislation, which applies to public school students, both of these states have additional laws to protect private school journalists. Even without a legal recourse, however, students can make a strong case for press freedom in other ways.

  1. Link press freedom to the school’s mission statement

Private schools, whether religious or secular, are founded on a central mission. This mission guides all aspects of the school, from hiring practices to curriculum and instruction. Making the connection between a school’s mission and supporting a free student press is often straightforward and effective. Here are two examples; I have bolded language that comes directly from the schools’ mission statements.

From my school: “Student media at Archer connects directly to the school’s mission to ‘strengthen girls’ voices’ and ‘promote challenge-seeking and support risk-taking’ in order to ‘graduate courageous, committed, and ethical young women.’ For these purposes, as well as to teach students responsibility by empowering them to make and defend their own decisions, student news media at the Archer School for Girls are designated open forums for student expression where students make all final decisions of content. Therefore, student material published on The Oracle may not reflect the opinions or policies of The Archer School for Girls, and neither school employees nor the school itself are legally responsible for its content.”

From Convent of the Sacred Heart: “’Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom,’ (Goal 5), therefore The Broadview operates as an open forum for free speech and student expression without prior review.”

  1. Make an argument for civic engagement and 21st century skills — and earning the FAPFA.

Most schools cite building 21st century skills as a key curricular goal, and I would argue scholastic journalism builds more of these skills than any other program. Making a pedagogical argument for the value of practicing democracy, not just preaching it, is another strategy for winning administrative support.

Check out the Framework for 21st Century Skills or this Education Week teacher blog for arguments to help your case. For administrators who are concerned about critical articles making the school “look bad” — an understandable concern for schools who rely on student applications and tuition — reframe “bad press” in terms of showcasing student voice and practicing democracy.

A vibrant, free student press acting as a watchdog reveals important issues that the administration can then address. These schools don’t just say they empower student voices — they live it. I also recommend sharing information about the FAPFA and the prestige of winning this award. Only three private schools have ever won it; wouldn’t they like to join that list?

  1. Ground the publication in journalistic ethics and best practices.

If you don’t have a state law or the Constitution to protect freedom of the press, building credibility as a publication is key. How does a staff you do that? Good reporting, careful fact-checking and an ethical framework.

When my students and I were initially building our program, we spent a lot of time talking about the adage, “Just because you can publish doesn’t mean you always should.” Although press freedom should never be tied to an administrator’s beliefs about what should or should not be published, the student editorial board needs an ethical code to guide them through difficult decisions — and they need to practice applying that code to tough situations.

  1. Build a relationship with administrators. Educate them about the process and sustain respectful, but firm, communication.

Once you have put the previous steps into practice, it’s time to showcase your program. Invite administrators into the classroom to see the staff at work. Have student reporters explain the process they go through to ensure accurate, fair reporting. Have student editors walk administrators through a hypothetical ethical dilemma so they can see how the editors apply their ethical code to real-world scenarios. Administrators who understand the process are much more likely to trust it.

The editorial board — and especially the editor-in-chief — also needs to practice navigating conversations with administrators when problems arise. For example, when our middle school director wanted to see middle-schoolers’ quotes before a potentially controversial story was published a few years back in our grades 6-12 school, my 12th grade editor-in-chief sat down with her to explain prior review and why our publication doesn’t participate in it. She also explained the careful process the reporters and editors go through to ensure quotes aren’t taken out of context or used to humiliate young sources.

The conversation resolved the problem — the middle school director was reassured, and the article was published without prior review. The editors also decided to include a new ethical guideline in our staff manual to have upper school reporters consider the age and maturity of middle school sources when quoting them.

For those working in public schools, some of these strategies may feel like pandering. But private schools are about relationships, and sometimes private school students have to persuade where public school students can demand. Once persuaded, however, administrators can become ardent press freedom supporters. That has been the case at my school. I hope these strategies will help more private schools join us on that FAFPA list in the future.

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