Pages Navigation Menu

Fighting self-censorship

Posted by on Oct 29, 2018 in Blog, Law and Ethics, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Advisers should oppose student self-censorship, empower decision-making

Advisers and students should oppose attempts at both internal and external censorship. However, that does not equate with student media covering topics that lack journalistic merit or don’t satisfy a journalistic function. Students should journalistically examine and evaluate media content.

Social media post/question:

Why should advisers actively oppose censorship?


Advisers and students should oppose internal and external censorship. This may include administrative, staff, faculty and even self-censorship. However, that does not equate with student media covering topics that lack journalistic merit or satisfy a journalism function. Students should journalistically examine and evaluate media content.


Journalism teachers must work to stem the tide of self-censorship.

In a survey administered to the NSPA/JEA convention at a recent JEA/NSPA convention, both students and advisers stated they experienced self-censorship. According to the survey, “39 percent of students and 32 percent of advisers said their staff had decided not to publish something based on the belief that school officials would censor it.”

This fear of censorship or of being disciplined for content shouldn’t occur. Advisers must work to educate their students and others about the problems of self-censorship in regard to topics that are journalistically and ethically sound.

A journalism teacher’s duties is in the job title — advise(r).

According to the JEA Adviser Code of Ethics, journalism advisers should,  “Advise and mentor, rather than act as censor or decision-maker.” Teachers need to empower students to make content decisions and fight against student self-censorship.

If advisers censor students, they not only violate this code, they also teach students it is acceptable for a government entity to censor someone’s First Amendment rights. When public teachers function as employees of the government, that is exactly what we teach.







Female High School Students Bear the Burden of Censorship,

Curing Hazelwoodpackage, SPRC

The Role of Student Media: Foundations Package, SPRC

SPLC resources, SPLC

JEA Adviser Code of Ethics

Self Censorship is the Scariest of All, SPRC



Advisers and students should oppose self-censorship (and other forms of staff censorship) and attempts administrative censorship. However, that does not equate with student media covering topics that lack journalistic merit or satisfy a journalism function. Students should journalistically examine and evaluate media content. See this blogon including controversial coverage.


If advisers censor students, they not only ignore JEA’s Adviser Code of Ethics, they are also teach students that it is acceptable for a government entity to censor someone’s First Amendment right. When public teachers are functioning as employees of the government, that is exactly what they are teaching.


While teachers shouldn’t be leading the fight for the students’ First Amendment rights, teachers can work to educate others in the building (other teachers, administrators, school board members and students) about students’ rights.


If a problem does occur, it is important for the teacher to take in union representation (if possible) and document the meeting. Also, ask for notes and written directives. If you don’t follow these directives, you could be seen as insubordinate.


Advisers who understand that educating others about the students rights are important may find it easier if a problem does exists. If the students already know they can reach out to the Student Press Law Center or hit JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee’s Panic Button, the teacher has empowered the students to fight this fight.







Every August I have the talk with my editors. It’s not about the proverbial birds and the bees, instead it’s about what to do and who to contact if someone attempts to censor their content.


The students receive the Student Press Law Center’s contact information and information about how to access and hit SPRC’s Panic Button.


A few years ago I also learned of a “secret” document that has been passed down from editor to editor since 2011. From what I’m told, the document outlines this information and states exactly what I can and can’t help with. It seems my students actually do want me to keep my job.


My students know that if a censorship situation occurs, I cannot help them. They have to be the ones to fight for their First Amendment rights. In fact, when my students filed a lawsuit during the spring of 2017, I didn’t know about it until I saw Echo’s tweet that the students had sued the school for access to hallway video of an alleged hijab pull. Later I learned they filed a Freedom of Information Act request without my knowledge, found their own pro bono attorney and I also suspect they have documents about this request I still have never seen.


During this process, I did know something was up. I would walk into the Echo room and everyone would get quiet. At times they would tell me to go fill my coffee mug or a student would ask if he or she could speak to me outside the publications room about something — and it really wasn’t anything that needed discussing. During all of this, my gut told me they were conspiring about something or planning a party. I just had to trust in whatever it was they were doing.


This experience of having to blindly trust the students was a good one for me. I know my students understand a First Amendment fight is not one I can or will wage. They have to take the initiative.


What I’ve learned through this is that I will continue to trust my students and continue to education them on their rights prior to a problem occurring. If students already know they can reach out to the Student Press Law Center or hit JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee’s Panic Button before a problem exists, the teacher has empowered the students to fight this fight.



Read More

Censorship leads to fake news

Posted by on Oct 29, 2018 in Blog, Law and Ethics, Quick Tips, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching | 0 comments


Prior-review/censor guideline /policy

Journalists often are considered mirrors on society. As such, journalism should reflect the community in which it is produced. In order to also maintain their watchdog function, journalists must also be able to act as candles that illuminate and challenge a community’s values and preconceptions.

Monitoring the status quo and the powers that be is one way journalists can both reflect and challenge their communities. This journalistic practice helps maintain the free and accurate flow of information.

Additionally, student media should be independent from their school’s public relations arm. The purpose of student media is to report school and community issues and events. Consequently, the purpose of student media is not to protect the image of the school or district.

These roles are premised on the idea that student media can operate in an independent manner.

JEA strongly rejects both prior review and restraint as tools in the education process and agrees with other national journalism education groups that no valid educational justification exists for prior review of scholastic media.

Prior review and prior restraint of student media content by school officials are weapons in the arsenal of censorship. Not only do they limit student learning and application, but they also restrict student critical thinking and analysis.

This would be included in the policy portion.


Social media post/question:How does self-censorship impact what students cover?

Stance: Students should create a clear guideline for stemming the tide of self-censorship.

Reasoning/suggestions: Students are often self-censoring important content — especially if they have been censored previously.

When students self-censor topics journalistically ethical and legal to cover, they are in essence forwarding the concept of fake news. If students are afraid to cover topics of importance to them, they are not creating a true open forum for student discussion and are not functioning as a journalist.


SPLC Active Voices

Lesson: Censorship=Fake news

Self Censorship links from SPLC

JEA prior review definition

Sarah Nichol’s blog from 2009

Self-censorship is scariest of all

Posted by JBowen   Oct 30, 2009 in Law and Ethics, News, Scholastic Journalism, Teaching| 0 comments

All week I’ve heard plans for creepy costume parties, haunted house visits and horror film marathons. But as Halloween weekend approaches, there’s something much scarier on my mind.

It’s scary how many media staffs and their advisers are under fire right now for doing exactly what they set out to do: report on issues of impact and interest to their students. The current situation at Timberland High School in Wentzville, Mo. is just one example of many. Stories of little consequence, such as the homecoming court or club happenings, rarely draw attention. But the ones that matter — the ones that have potential to help students — come under fire at an alarming rate, despite thorough research, credible sources and top-notch student reporting.

It’s scary when kids grapple with these big issues and how to cover them well. But it’s even scarier when they don’t. Good journalism — and the whole part about critical thinking, student leadership and free expression — stops when kids decide to censor themselves.

All too often I hear my kids during staff brainstorming sessions say things like, “People would freak out if we covered that,” or “[Insert administrator names] would give us a really hard time if we did that.” Despite frequent discussion of media law and a dissection of the ed code, I still hear, “We can’t do that, can we?”

In most cases, they can. And in many cases, they should. It’s easy to see why kids might be inclined to shy away from the good stories, the real stories. After all, many advisers share updates in class of programs facing censorship and use these as teachable moments. We read the controversial articles, discuss the situations and follow the stories over an extended period of time. Kids are interested and engage in meaningful discussion, but I realized lately that they might not be taking away the message we think we’re sending. Do our students come away inspired and empowered, or are they afraid of censorship, administrative retaliation or the risk of losing a beloved adviser?

Scary possibilities, to be sure.

We can combat self-censorship with a few simple strategies:

(1) Continue to expose students to outstanding journalism, both from students and from the pros. Read it, discuss it, analyze it. Nothing beats an important story done well.

(2) When students begin to talk themselves out of a sensitive story topic, encourage them to revisit your mission statement and/or editorial policies. Teach students to weigh the options: how many readers might be helped or touched by this story? What’s the potential for good here? How far might this story reach?

(3) Get outside your school bubble. You know your school community, yes, but have you looked at how other student media have covered similar stories? Are others in your city, state, region affected by the same topics? Is there an opportunity to learn from the experience of others? Collaborate?

(4) Point to a wide variety of resources so students have support. When students feel confident in their research and reporting skills, they’re confident tackling bigger stories. Establish a team-oriented staff culture so that students have peers willing to help with research and interviewing. Good student journalists know how much work is involved in getting a story right; they might talk themselves out of tackling the topic because they know a sensitive story often involves extra effort. Again, work together.

(5) Make sure students understand how to utilize expert assistance from the SPLCand feel comfortable doing so. Consider role-playing sample scenarios in class. Encourage student editors to create a plan in the event that a situation arises. It’s like a fire drill — we don’t expect to be in a fire but we practice the drill and know how to call 911 if we need to. Then we’re free to go about our daily lives and focus on what matters.

If staffers have a plan in place, covering a potentially controversial subject doesn’t seem so scary.

Sarah Nichols, MJE



Read More