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The fight for First Amendment rights has escalated

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

Needless to say, a staple in any beginning journalism course is (or should be) understanding the First Amendment. Many educators go to great lengths, and rightfully so, to make sure their students know the five freedoms guaranteed (religion, speech, press, assembly, petition).

The 45 words are engrained in our, and hopefully our student’s, heads from the days of J-1 and for the rest of our lives.

We know them.

We defend them.

And we expect our government to abide them.

Sadly, the key word in the previous sentence is expect. However, recent stories have indicated that is not the case. 

Both The Washington Post and CNN have revealed situations in which the Trump Administration sought to interfere with the practice of a free press.

On May 7, the Post reported:

“The Trump Justice Department secretly obtained Washington Post journalists’ phone records and tried to obtain their email records over reporting they did in the early months of the Trump administration on Russia’s role in the 2016 election, according to government letters and officials.”

Almost exactly two weeks later, on May 20, CNN moved a story that said almost exactly the same thing when it reported:

“The Trump administration secretly sought and obtained the 2017 phone and email records of a CNN correspondent, the latest instance where federal prosecutors have taken aggressive steps targeting journalists in leak investigations.”

Be concerned. Very concerned.

The fear facing the American public at large is that the very principles of our democracy continue to come under attack by government officials who seek to manipulate the Constitution for their own personal vendettas. The assault on the American media, in this case by the Trump Administration, is little more than effort to erode the trust in the media among the American people.

While there may be warts in journalistic practice by some scribes, the reality is that the institution that is the American media is pretty damn good – largely because the framers of the Constitution saw to it that Americans deserved a press that was free of government interference.

Journalism curriculums at all levels need to be tweaked to take into consideration the current climate of battering of the media. For high school educators, the challenge is more daunting. No longer can student journalists embark on journalism because it’s fun or because they have a friend on staff.

It has become a rumble. A street fight.

The challenge for student, if not all, journalists, is echoed in the oath given to the President of the United States to “…preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” By upholding the intent of the First Amendment, student journalists are in essence following the oath. Obviously, scholastic journalists need to understand and practice the full breadth of power and responsibility they have under the First Amendment.

And with this power and responsibility comes something else. Something that may usurp the joy and fun of being a student journalist.

The challenge. Not the challenge of getting a good grade. Not the challenge of meeting deadlines or accurate reporting.

The challenge “from above.” The proverbial trickle-down effect.

The new and now seemingly sad reality, is that interreference by those “in power” who see fit to try and impede the First Amendment Rights of journalists – including student journalists. 

In the past, solid reporting and fact checking were the main spears needed to ward off an attack by overzealous administrators, community activists and, sadly, even parents who want to impede the educational process based on their own biases. 

Journalism educators need to step up their coaching of student journalists when it comes to identifying support for their First Amendment rights. The obvious first steps are JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee and the Student Press Law Center. Beyond these two pillars of support for scholastic journalism, advisers and students should reach out and connect with state and congressional representatives who understand the need for a free and responsible student press and that fabrications that students don’t have First Amendment rights are unwarranted and unfounded.

Students and advisers should also look for support from organizations like American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the League of Woman Voters. Both groups have regional or local chapters that more than likely be willing to work with students.

The challenge for student, if not all, journalists, is echoed in the oath given to the President of the United States to “…preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” By upholding the intent of the First Amendment, student journalists are in essence following the oath. Obviously, scholastic journalists need to understand and practice the full breadth of power and responsibility they have under the First Amendment.

Stan Z0ller

Scholastic press associations should consider initiatives to step up their efforts to initiate or support New Voices legislation.

The need has always been there.  Now, however, the stakes are greater than ever before.

The defense of First Amendment rights can no longer be penciled into a unit in a course curriculum, or on a poster during Scholastic Journalism Week or Constitution Week.

Like the ongoing assault, the defense must be ongoing. 

We don’t have a choice.

We need to be concerned. Very concerned.

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