As teenagers make the transition into adulthood, they’re entrusted with more and more independent life skills, from working to driving to voting. One privilege that ranks right up there is the responsibility to tell their own stories, and those of their generation, faithfully and fearlessly.
Student journalists record the first draft of history for their schools, whether on newsprint, website or video. No example is more breathtaking than one young reporter at Parkland High School in Florida; he interviewed classmates in real time and documented the Feb. 14 massacre with an immediacy no adult news crew could rival.
That’s why legislation to fortify the rights of Washington student journalists is so important, and why state lawmakers should be commended for supporting it this session. Both the Senate and House have approved Senate Bill 5064, and on Monday it was sent to the governor to sign into law.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, would put student editors squarely in charge of content for their public school publications. The fear that administrators will censor articles or forbid them from being published, which is woefully prevalent in high schools and even colleges, would largely be laid to rest.
Fain nailed it in his statement of support for the bill: “Practicing journalism in its full capacity better prepares students to pursue a career in journalism and equips them with the critical thinking, research and writing skills that lead to more engaged citizens.”
That second part bears repeating: Regardless of eventual career choices, equipping young people with media literacy skills has never been more necessary. Today’s teens must learn to evaluate a tangled mess of truth and fiction flying at them at digital speeds, sometimes coming from exalted institutions (including the White House).
The bill is the latest iteration of the “New Voices” movement sweeping the country. In 2015, North Dakota led a fresh wave of states safeguarding the free-expression rights of student journalists. Overall, 13 states now have similar statutory protections.
It’s a slow-moving response to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which said that while school newspapers are subject to regulation, states are free to give students wide latitude to report and publish.
We’re pleased Washington is finally getting around to doing that. Fain’s bill includes reasonable exceptions, such as preventing publication of material that’s libelous, slanderous or incites students to break the law. We trust that public school journalism programs under the watch of conscientious adult advisers won’t cross those lines.
Censorship as a tool of school district authoritarianism should be put to a stop at a time when it’s becoming increasingly pointless. Consider what happened in January at a Utah high school, where the newspaper staff cracked a mystery about a long-absent history teacher.
Several weeks of intrepid reporting confirmed the teacher was on leave for alleged misconduct with a student. But when the Herriman High students published a story on their school newspaper website — an article that had been reviewed by their adviser and a vice principal —administrators removed it and revoked their privileges.
So they created their own website and posted the story there instead.
Quality journalism is being practiced in high schools and colleges around the South Sound and Washington state. This bill will give students encouragement to hone their craft under the modest supervision of adults in a classroom setting — and the confidence to publish boldly.
It behooves us all to listen to the late, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (given voice by Tom Hanks in this year’s Oscar-nominated film, “The Post”):
“The only way to assert the right to publish,” he said, “is to publish.”