Pages Navigation Menu

Make time for the First Amendment


by Sarah Nichols, MJE
JEA President

December is a busy month, I know. And things still feel slower and more difficult than our pre-pandemic student media operations. But that’s all the more reason to invest the time to discuss and apply for the First Amendment Press Freedom Award before the Dec. 15 deadline.

Don’t underestimate your eligibility or feel like you “haven’t done enough” this year to deserve recognition. Applying to recognize your school doesn’t require a big fancy project or massive undertaking. You’re probably doing more than you realize to promote First Amendment awareness on your campus.

It may be outside your comfort zone to apply for an award. Instead of seeing it as seeking the spotlight, think of it this way: Your student media program is actively applying the First Amendment, and your school is supporting student press freedom. Sharing this acknowledgement not only makes you all look good, but it helps guarantee these policies and practices will continue for years to come. And what serves as positive reinforcement on your campus also adds to the list nationally. Journalism programs are worth fighting for – and recognizing.

If you’ve never thought about it, now’s the time. 

If you’ve dropped it from the to-do list, bring it back.

Here are a few things you may do in your program already or may want to try:

Memorize the First Amendment — How can students apply, protect and defend the five freedoms if they can’t identify them? Have a contest, make it an assignment, sing it, rap it or perform it. On the staff I advise, every student memorizes the 45 words and recites it for their peers.

Teach, train and share — Use lessons from the JEA Curriculum Initiative or Constitution Day materials from the Scholastic Press Rights Committee. These are great anytime! Have you considered collaborating with teachers from other subject areas like social studies and language arts?

Beyond JEA’s resources, you also may choose to utilize this set of free law and ethics videos from Virginia High School League and the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers.

Use social media — Assign students to work in teams to practice their journalistic skills with tools like Instagram and TikTok to produce PSAs and informationals packages about First Amendment topics.

Host a forum or meet-up — Consider bringing together program leaders, administrators and teachers to meet with a team of your journalism students to talk about things like student voice, copyright, account access and other important topics. The First Amendment plays a role in areas far beyond student media. Use this as an opportunity to educate stakeholders about how it might affect different groups, events and decisions on your campus.

Gift some First Amendment swag — This time of year is popular for staff holiday gifts or semester-end rewards. T-shirts and posters are one way to increase visibility and extend the reach of your First Amendment advocacy at school. If you have the budget, consider ordering shirts for your entire staff so you can plan designated days to attract attention by showing your support for student press freedom. At our school, we gift these T-shirts to our administrators and invite them to wear theirs when we wear ours. 

Assistant Principal Jennifer Hanks wears a First Amendment shirt she received from Whitney High Student Media editor Katie Lomba. The student media staff wore these monthly to generate awareness on campus.

If you’ve earned the First Amendment Press Freedom Award previously, now is a great time to make sure your newer staff members know how important it is. Editors can carry on the legacy of completing the application and teaching their peers about the important practices and policies.

It’s amazing what kind of questions and discussions come out of this process before the editor submits an application. On the staff I advise, returning editors conduct our policy review at the start of each school year, and then in November we devote a full editorial board meeting to discussing FAPFA, and asking each team or section to brainstorm what activities, lessons and events they want to coordinate on campus.

Teaching new editors about the First Amendment Press Freedom Award, editor-in-chief Kaitlyn El-Sayegh shows the plaque from the previous year and outlines various projects and activities conducted previously by Whitney High Student Media (Rocklin, Calif.)

As the adviser, I’m usually surprised each time by a question from someone at the table. After the initial “Sheesh, you learned this last year!” plays through my mind, I’m thrilled to witness the peer-to-peer teaching as students talk through various scenarios about students making content decisions and encountering legal or ethical dilemmas. Everyone learns something every time.

Whether you’ve applied before or are considering it for the first time, I urge you to carve out some time this month for First Amendment awareness, education and celebration. Review the FAPFA information online and take advantage of the opportunity by Dec. 15.

Investing the time — even in a busy month like December — brings positive attention to student press freedom, which is worth every minute.