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Press rights are concept deserving every. day. practice

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

It’s a scene that has played out many times. An administrator prior reviews a publication. Adviser and staff bring the situation to light by contacting the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee (SPRC) and other organizations.

Before long, the situation ebbs – resolved or not – and life goes on.

Students who can name one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment earn an appropriate t-shirt from Mary Beth and John Tinker. Represented on stage were Florida, Texas and Iowa. (photo by Candace Bowen)

Which is a problem. The assault on journalism continues at all levels. Advisers and student journalists at the scholastic level need to continue their vigilance on a regular basis to maintain a free and responsible student media.

Their efforts should support those of the SPRC and SPLC. In states where New Voices legislation is in place, efforts also need to ensure the laws are followed by administrators and student journalists.

In those states where New Voices laws are pending, advisers and student journalists should be on board to support passage of pending legislation. Conversely, if your state does not have a New Voices law, consider working with a local or regional scholastic press association (SPA) to begin work on developing a New Voices law.

Student press rights is an ongoing initiative. Waiting until you a faced with a challenge to your media foster little more than animosity and distribution in the media cycle.

Advocating for scholastic press rights, especially by advisers, needs to be part of the regular fabric of advising and teaching journalism. 

Sometimes it can be painful and that pain can become part of your legacy as an adviser.

As was the case with Rodney Lowe.

For those unfamiliar with Rodney, he was the adviser of the award-winning Evanstonian, the school newspaper at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois, for more than three decades before retiring in 2019.

Rodney’s legacy is laden with awards and honors for not only the paper, but for his students whom he so passionately revered and taught. Their respect in return was the same.

So when word came down Aug. 25 that Rodney had died, remembrances of his legacy quickly lit up social media. To no surprise, former students, parents and fellow advisers touted his warmth and passion for scholastic journalism and, of course, his students.

Unfortunately, part of his legacy will always be the brutal fight involving the Evanstonian, and the administration, that led not only to prior review, but restraint and confiscation of the paper because of an article administrators claimed violated the school’s publication policy.

Rodney Lowe, who died this year, was a champion. of press rights and journalistic responsibility at the Evanstonian, student newspaper at Evanston High in Illinois.

School officials looked past more than three decades of Lowe’s serving students, producing award-winning papers that practiced free and responsible journalism to throw him under the bus.

I had the privilege and honor to know Rodney as a colleague and friend and to say he wasn’t about to back down is an understatement.

As he had for three decades, Rodney defended his students’ rights to report on issues related to the school’s student body and let the Evanstonian be a true student publication.

Could things have been done differently? Absolutely. However, there was nothing egregious about the coverage, which was about student use of marijuana. All it did was give some administrators a platform to try and control the student media and its adviser.

Advisers and student journalists should keep abreast of student media laws, their district policies and sensitivities toward student media on a regular basis. Discuss them. Support them. Practice them. And if you need a role model, remember Rodney Lowe.

That wasn’t going to happen. Not because Rodney was being obstinate, but because he had advocated, practiced and fought for student press rights every day of his career. 

He didn’t wait until the Bastille was being stormed.  It was a regular part of passion for student media.

And, in a perfect world, that’s the way it should be.

Advisers and student journalists should keep abreast of student media laws, their district policies and sensitivities toward student media on a regular basis.

Discuss them. Support them. Practice them.

And if you need a role model, remember Rodney Lowe.

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