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SCSPA creates new way to fight censorship; good SJW model for others to follow

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by Phillip Caston, Chairman, SCSPA Executive Board

This year, the S.C. Scholastic Press Association has set a new goal of fighting for the cause of the free press in scholastic journalism. For too long, scholastic publications and organizations have been on the defensive when it comes to misapplications of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

In South Carolina, we believe it’s time to be proactive rather than reactive.

In order to accomplish this goal, we had to find a way to further unite scholastic publications across the state even if they weren’t members of SCSPA. Therefore, director Karen Flowers and the board talked about creating a new position, a liaison between the scholastic publications in our state and the SCSPA board members.

Should a case of censorship or other incidence of unlawful administrative control occur, student journalists would have a hotline, so to speak, in which they could contact the SCSPA First Amendment liaison. This person would then alert the SCSPA board and take steps towards alleviating the student publication’s censorship plight.

Of course, figuring out who would serve in this role was the greatest challenge facing the board. A current adviser would likely be too busy with his or her teaching duties to serve in the position. A current adviser also could face consequences at his or her job while attempting to help another school, or, even worse, the censorship could occur at that particular adviser’s school. A scholastic journalist would likely have his or her own time constraints and may not be taken seriously by principals at other schools.

The answer seemed to lie in finding a current student in the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, preferably someone who had been a scholastic journalist. That person would be someone who had quick access to SCSPA and its resources. The person would also be essentially “untouchable;” that is, he or she could not face repercussions from principals or school district officials. This person would also be one who believed in the free press, and, like most college students, would be willing to fight for the greater cause.

The person who immediately came to my mind was Ashley Brown, the 2009 SCSPA Journalist of the Year and a current sophomore at in the University of South Carolina’s J-School. Ashley also served as my editor in chief on the J.L. Mann High School student newspaper. I called her up and didn’t even finish explaining to her what the job entailed before she said, “I’ll do it.” Ashley’s position will be a one-year term, but it can be renewable.

Following the board’s approval at our last meeting, the First Amendment liaison now takes on the following responsibilities:

• Distributing wallet cards with her phone number and e-mail address, setting up the “hotline” for scholastic journalists throughout the state.

• Keeping up to date with First Amendment legislation and court rulings as well as informing the SCSPA of changes nationwide.

• Maintaining communication with the Student Press Law Center if such action is required.

• Establishing relationships with law professors at the J-School for supplement advice.

• Working through several types of communication—from e-mail to Twitter, from listservs to Facebook—to inform advisers and students of their legal rights.

• Documenting cases of First Amendment abuse in South Carolina for SCSPA record.

• Communicating with administrators, if necessary, about their students’ rights and offering proactive solutions for improving relationships.

• Contacting local media outlets to protect student journalists.

• Working with the SCSPA board to establish a plan of action in proposing a Student Freedom of Expression bill to the S.C. state legislature (a plan we will pursue in the next couple of years).

•  Teaching an introductory First Amendment class at SCSPA conferences.

The creation of this position is a powerful first step in protecting the rights of student journalists in South Carolina and undoing the damaging effects of Hazelwood. The only way to stand up against First Amendment abuses is for student journalists to unite across the state. Ashley Brown now serves as that united voice in South Carolina.

We hope other scholastic press organizations across the country will adopt similar First Amendment liaison positions. Perhaps one day we can speak as a united voice for the free press across the entire nation.

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