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Proactivity can help face a challenge

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by Stan Zoller,MJE
Watch just about any team sporting event and at some point, there will be challenge to a call. Or challenge to the rules.

It’s no different with some scholastic journalism programs. Despite New Voices laws in 14 states, and bills introduced in three others, challenges to the rules, or in this case laws, are not unusual.

While more and more states give scholastic journalists greater leeway in the editorial production of student media, challenges continue. Often, these challenges start at the departmental level while others seem to find their way to school board meetings.

No matter how well student media may be done, there seems to be the emergence of someone who sees fit to challenge a state’s New Voices law. Quite often, the challenge may come from someone as well versed in the law as attorney J. Cheever Loophole, portrayed by the late Groucho Marx in “At the Circus,” whose aim is to provide misguided if not comical attacks on a student publication.

Other issues, however, may be more substantive and warrant a serious and thoughtful response.

When the challenge flag is thrown, it is important for advisers and student journalists to realize that they are not alone in their fight.

The first step is to push JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission’s “Panic Button” at jeasprc.org/panic-button, which will connect the adviser and/or student to invaluable resources that provide assistance and guidance needed to deal with a challenge to a program or media. Students and advisers should also contact the Student Press Law Center at splc.org.

It seems, however, that matters relating to challenges to scholastic journalism program are generally reactive.

They don’t have to be.

Advisers and their students should be proactive in educating and working with administrators at any level. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. If your state has a New Voices law, or if one is in the state legislature, know and understand the law and its parameters. I cringed after the successful signing of legislation in Illinois when one adviser gleefully bounced around saying that now that the law was in place, her student journalists could “do anything they want.” Clearly this adviser had not taken a good look at the law and was unfamiliar with what it allows student journalists to do and not to do.  This kind of posture will actually build barriers rather than foster strong working relationships.
  2. Work with organizations that support scholastic journalism and its civic engagement. Disappointingly, New Voices legislation does not always grab headlines, especially if there are major issues facing your state’s legislature. As legislation is discussed and once it is (hopefully) signed, working with allied organizations will help if challenges arise.  It is also a good idea to find community activist groups or attorneys who may have an interest in press freedom and First Amendment issues and are willing to provide pro-bono help.
  3. Work with state and regional scholastic press organizations. This is a no brainer, but the more branches you can include, the better the tree.
  4. Keep your JEA state director informed. They are the pipeline to the state’s JEA members.  If your state does not have a state director, work with JEA on ways to reach members to garner their support.
  5. Educate, educate, educate. Don’t wait until you call the fire department to install a smoke alarm.  Be proactive and discuss legislation with your school and district administration. It’s protocol 101. You should find out what policies regarding student media may be in place an determine how well they coincide or worse, conflict, with proposed or signed legislation.
  6. Make sure your students understand legislation. In many cases, the strength of a bill may actually raise the level of expectations for student journalists.
  7. Follow the JEA Scholastic Press Rights Commission for ongoing suggestions and updates on legislation.

These are just a few ideas.  As more states pass New Voices legislation and others have bills introduced, there will be more ideas.

In the meantime, like a coach or manager of a professional sports team – be ready for a challenge.

 

 

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