N.J. student newspapers should not be muzzled
A bipartisan bill making its way through the state Legislature would make it harder for public schools and universities in New Jersey to muzzle student journalists.
Assembly members Gail Phoebus (R-Sussex) and Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) are sponsors of the measure.
It would largely shield young reporters and editors from administrative censorship, except in cases where the story in question was libelous, or where it would represent an unwarranted invasion of a subject's privacy.
The legislation, which has moved to the Assembly's education committee, would mandate that schools adopt a written policy concerning students' freedom of expression, according to Singleton's web site.
The question of student journalists' free-speech rights is not a mere academic exercise. On the site, Singleton refers to two fairly recent cases, one in Hunterdon County and one in Burlington County, in which advisors to high school newspapers either resigned or were relieved of their duties over the issue.
In addition to providing valuable news for their readers, university and high school publications frequently function as incubators for tomorrow's award-winning journalists.
In her Student Newspaper Survival Guide, author Rachele Kanigel lists notables who got their starts this way, including David Halberstam, Michael Kinsey, Molly Ivins and Garry Trudeau.
According to Singleton, inspiration for the bill comes from The New Voices campaign, a nationwide initiative designed to uphold the principles of the First Amendment, including ways it pertains to students.
To help shore up those rights, the measure carries a provision stating that teachers and staff cannot be "dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for acting to protect their students.
One of the most important responsibilities of a free student press is to serve as a watchdog, pointing out transgressions and holding accountable people in authority.
Its reportage keeps readers informed of important events both within the school walls (grading policies, curriculum changes) and without (candidates' stands in national elections, threats to the environment).
Like their professional brothers and sisters in the media, most student journalists take these responsibilities quite seriously. Likewise, school administrators have the duty to give these students the widest latitude possible – even (especially) when the stories they produce are critical of the administration in question.
The bravest of these young crusaders don't back down from tackling the hard issues: teen suicide, drug use, schoolyard bullying, the realities of living in a world driven by social media.
They need to know that their advisers and administrators have their backs – not to fear that they will be thwarted at every turn.
The Phoebus/Singleton bill is a healthy step in that direction.