New Hampshire bill may do more
than control surveys
by Stan Zoller
The First Amendment guarantees five freedoms: freedom of religion, speech, press, the right to assemble and the right to petition.
And while journalists – whether student journalists or professional journalists – wrap themselves in the security blanket afforded Americans by the First Amendment, it does not guarantee good journalism.
What does help, and this is not breaking news, is for news organizations, student or otherwise, to check the pulse of their news consumers; in other words, localize national news stories trend stories.
It’s not rocket science and it just makes sense.
Unless you’re in New Hampshire.
That’s where the state legislature is considering a bill (HB 206) that would keep schools and school districts from administering surveys to students without parental consent.
The bill, all 280 words of it, says school districts needs to have a policy regulating the administration of “non-academic surveys that “…means surveys, questionnaires, or other documents designed to elicit information about a student’s social behavior, family life, religion, politics, sexual orientation, sexual activity, drug use, or any other information not related to a student’s academics.”
So what’s a non-academic survey and who decides? This bill has so many holes in it you might think it was sponsored by either Dunkin Donuts or Einstein Bagels.
The bill, and its terse 17-word “analysis,” does not provide rationale or clarity as to what a non-academic survey is.
As a journalism educator, I have concerns as to how much control this could give administrators over content for student media.
For the sake of argument, if a student media outlet is produced as a class, is a survey for a news outlet the deemed ‘academic?’ Conversely, it may seem logical student media produced as an extra-curricular activity or club would be deemed non-academic and thereby excluded from the provisions in the bill. But remember, we’re talking logic here.
The bill, if passed, would mandate that all New Hampshire schools have a policy. However, without a clear definition as to what is an ‘academic survey’, passage could lead to a Pandora’s Box for student journalists and their advisers. How? If a district or school decides that student media is in fact ‘academic’ regardless of how or when it is produced, surveys developed to augment stories could fall prey to an administrator’s own goals or objectives.
If the bill passes and parental approval is needed for student participation in surveys, the question becomes who approves or reviews surveys before they go to parents? Chances are it will be an administrator who will, by virtue of the bill and/or district policy, have the power, for lack of a better word, to skew student viewpoint by altering (dare I say edit?) a survey’s content.
This not only impairs unabashed student expression, but in essence gives thumbs up to prior review or worse, if an administrator does not like the survey – prior restraint.
In addition to potentially making it difficult for student journalists to report the pulse of their readers, the bill, depending on a district’s policy, stands to also undermine the integrity of a journalism educator to advise student media since the district would, in essence, control the scope of student opinion.
There may be one solution – survey the New Hampshire state legislature.
If nothing else, it would give it a taste of its own medicine.