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New Voices may bring new challenges

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by Stan Zoller, MJE 

As the pandemic lingers and school districts ping-pong back and forth between at-home learning, in-school learning and hybrid learning, one thing hasn’t changed. 

Laws governing student expression.

Fourteen states already have laws that protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists and, reports the Student Press Law Center, laws have been introduced or reintroduced in seven states. Full details about New Voices legislation can be found at this SPLC link.

But it’s not, as the late Al McGuire would say, “all seashells and balloons.”

The pandemic had led some school districts to come up with new policies regulating student behavior ranging from wearing pajamas during at-home learning to, you guessed it, student expression.

notes on board

The sad reality is, however, that some districts think the ongoing pandemic can usurp the law. I have seen cases of this not only on issues relating to student media, but also to Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws

In the 14 states where laws provide guidelines for student journalists, advisers have the luxury, maybe benefit is a better word, of having the law on their side. At least you think it would.

The sad reality is, however, that some districts think the ongoing pandemic can usurp the law. I have seen cases of this not only on issues relating to student media, but also to Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws. Fortunately, attorney generals in some states maintain the pandemic does not give government or school officials carte blanche to do what they want.

The school board in one Illinois district has tried to limit coverage of Black Lives Matters in response to a resident’s “concern” about yearbook content.

What is disturbing is the district and its school board chose to act without regard for Illinois Public Act 99-9678 which clearly stipulates the parameters school district and building administrators have on student media. Knee-jerk reactions to a seemingly racist resident are not one of them.

There have also been reports of school districts trying to regulate what views students can pontificate on while on social media from their homes and on their own broadband networks.

Advisers and their student journalists should, if they don’t already have one in place, develop a system by which they can monitor legislative activity in their state during the pandemic. Working with local state legislators is a good place to start.

scrabble tiles

It’s also advisable to monitor not only legislation related to student media, but also school activities, freedom of information and open meetings. This will not only help with understanding their press rights, but students will be able to get a handle on any legislative changes that could impact their reporting.

It’s also advisable to monitor not only legislation related to student media, but also school activities, freedom of information and open meetings. This will not only help with understanding their press rights, but students will be able to get a handle on any legislative changes that could impact their reporting. 

For example, some states have clarified guidelines for open meetings don’t waiver just because a meeting is held online via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other video conferencing programs. City councils, village boards and school boards still need to be held accountable and transparent.

Students journalists should watch school board meetings and make sure all information is available to them. 

Good reporting is incumbent on good information from public bodies. Pandemic or not – that’s just good government. 

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