Student journalists fight for more editorial control over school media

SUNY New Paltz journalism student Jessie Russell

Student journalists from Corning-Painted Post High School are lobbying for a bill that would grant them — and all student journalists — more editorial control over their school media.

After receiving backlash following the publication of a piece regarding teacher protests, they visited Albany to speak out in support for this bill that relates to the enactment of the Student Journalist Free Speech Act.

Currently, New York school officials and administrators can regulate the content of student publications. This can create conflict between the students’ First Amendment rights and the school.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Thomas O’Mara, R-Big Flats, and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, (S.7721/A.9801), would give students more editorial responsibility and extend their freedom by giving them more say in what content they want to publish.

This legislation would guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the press to all student journalists, including both public and private high schools and colleges and universities by giving them final editorial control, rather than school administrators.

Over a year and a half ago, the Flushing High School newspaper had an issue pulled from publication by the school principal. They were reporting on a positive school climate and added a quote from a student that said, “I feel like only three of my teachers care about me.” The New York Post eventually heard about this story, took it into their own hands and published it on behalf of the students.

According to the bill memo, it would enact the Student Journalist Free Speech Act to protect student speech at educational institutions unless the speech is libelous, an invasion of privacy, or incites students to commit an unlawful act, violate school policies, or to disrupt the orderly operation of the school.

“The role and the responsibility of a free press in American democracy is one of the most timely and serious examinations taking place in our society today,” said O’Mara. “I’m hopeful that this legislation will help constructively and instructively contribute to the discussion and, especially for aspiring journalists and their instructors and mentors, help heighten their appreciation and understanding of the First Amendment, the working press, and the protection and preservation of this ideal moving forward into the 21st century.”

As defined in the bill’s text, a “student  journalist” is a student enrolled in an educational institution who gathers, compiles, writes, edits, photographs, records or prepares information for dissemination in school-sponsored media.

“Student reporters are the next generation of journalists,” Lupardo said. ”It’s a difficult time to be a journalist as media across the country have come under attack. Having more control over what they publish will support journalistic integrity and independence which is what we need in a democratic society.”

In mid-February, the bill was referred to the Education Committee in both houses.