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Scholastic Journalism’s Right to Write

This is the third in a weekly series by NCTE member Alana Rome.

Alana RomeA new Maryland law protecting journalism teachers from being punished for student writing teaches us all one important fact: for better or worse, students’ words matter.

In preparation for the Journalism Education Association’s Certification for Journalism Educators (CJE) exam last week, I brushed up on various aspects of media law and ethics, including what (and who) is protected under the First Amendment. Through this amendment, the government promises to protect and respect citizens’ freedom of religion, speech, assembly, petition, and, most important for journalists, press. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, which may vary from state to state. Invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private and embarrassing facts, intrusion, false light, and misappropriation), libel, copyright, obscenity, and disruption are various forms of unprotected speech.

On April 26, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan signed a bill that guarantees scholastic and collegiate student journalists protection under the First Amendment, even if the publication is financed by the school or created as part of a journalism class. In the past, such a publication was more likely to be restrained through prior review (administration can view content prior to publication).

Whether this bill makes every scholastic publication in Maryland an open forum is unclear, but it most certainly gives more voice and freedom to the students and more protection for the adviser or journalism teacher. The line between fulfilling the responsibility to inform the public and releasing potentially damaging or controversial information, at least in the eyes of administration, can be a tenuous one. However, this fight for rights shows just how much student words matter. They matter because student journalists typically provide the most in-depth coverage of school events. They matter because a student publication represents the culture of the school. They matter because they are being fought over by politicians and legislatures. They matter because they can make or break a teacher’s career.

Several other states, including Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Alabama, and Minnesota, have similar active bills as part of the national New Voices movement. My home state, New Jersey, has yet to pass such a bill; according to New Voices’ website, the New Jersey legislature was scheduled to discuss the matter on January 12, but no news has been released since. Let’s hope we see more states looking to support the rights of student journalists and their teachers in order to protect and foster journalistic integrity for the next generation of writers.

Alana Rome is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting.