Censorship of Student Journalists Persists Despite their Essential Role Reporting on COVID, Protests, Racial Justice and Elections, New White Paper Finds

Hadar Harris, Executive Director
Student Press Law Center
(202) 549-6316 / hharris@splc.org

Student Journalists Celebrate 3rd Annual Student Press Freedom Day on Feb. 26 

Washington, D.C. — In anticipation of the 3rd annual Student Press Freedom Day on Friday, Feb. 26th, the Student Press Law Center released a white paper today detailing a continuing pattern of censorship of student journalists by school officials across the country. Student Journalists in 2020: Journalism Against the Odds notes that, despite incredible challenges students faced, they produced top-quality reporting on the most important safety, health and political issues of our day.

Examples detailed in the white paper include:

  • A high school student editor in Oklahoma was censored as they tried to publish an article about teachers resigning due to safety concerns over COVID-19. 
  • After a high school yearbook in Texas was printed and distribution was underway, the superintendent told the adviser that they had to halt distribution because a spread on the Black Lives Matter movement “would not sit well” in their conservative community.
  • A principal at a New York public high school prevented a student journalist from publishing an op-ed about concerns regarding inadequate instructional time due to distance learning until another article was published alongside which supported the school’s distance learning program. 
  • Student journalists in Virginia are exploring legal action after their university withheld important health and safety data, wrongfully citing FERPA and HIPAA concerns.

“Student journalists, like professional journalists, provide an essential, constitutionally-protected service to their communities and should be recognized and fully supported for the service they provide in gathering and delivering vital information on issues of concern to the public,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.The troubling trends we observed over the past year reinforce the need to ensure legal protections for student journalists in all 50 states.”

The theme for Student Press Freedom Day 2021 is Journalism Against the Odds, in acknowledgment of the important news coverage student journalists have produced, despite being faced with incredible challenges. In addition to outright censorship, student journalists worked against odds that included prior review, lack of access to critical data, suppression of or discipline for unflattering or controversial photos or other news coverage, assault and harassment during public gatherings, budget cuts, and an abrupt shift to an all-virtual newsroom and all-online business model. Furthermore, they faced the continuing scourge of a legal system that, following the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, has created an exemption for student free speech rights as it relates to student journalists, allowing overzealous school administrators to assert their power to censor broadly.

“As the only reporters with a front row seat to the challenge of safe schooling in 2020, student journalists like me had a unique perspective on the experience of the nearly 73 million students who were forced to move suddenly to remote learning in spring 2020 and the impact this had on our families and communities,” said Neha Madhira, sophomore at the University of Texas, Austin and reporter at the Daily Texan.  “Beyond our COVID-19 reporting, we have helped curate an important discussion about racial justice and systemic racism on our campuses and communities, and we took physical risks to cover protests in our communities, often being targeted by law enforcement because of our role as journalists. We student journalists must be allowed to do our jobs without undue interference.”

As part of Student Press Freedom Day, SPLC has curated 21 examples of impactful, important student journalism, focused on reporting on the impact of COVID-19, reckoning with racial justice, overcoming censorship and more. The stories represent work by both high school and college journalists with diverse backgrounds and from geographically diverse schools. These stories represent some of the very best in student journalism. 

A critical part of Student Press Freedom Day is students sharing their stories with mainstream media outlets, lawmakers, and their peers about the incredible odds they have faced in the past year to carry out their work. More than 100 student journalists took part this month in an op-ed writing “boot camp” with veteran CNN & New York Times Journalist Steven A. Holmes about how to craft and place an op-ed, and nearly half of the participants are working with a professional coach to support their efforts. 

In addition, with legislative sessions underway, students are advocating with New Voices chapters in their states and testifying before education and judiciary committees for proposed changes to state law that will protect student press freedom. They are creating and sharing video testimonials on social media about the challenges they face as student journalists and spreading the word using the hashtag  #StudentPressFreedom. They are participating in a student-moderated town hall forum about how to strengthen student press freedom moving forward. They are hosting group screenings and discussions of Raise Your Voice, a documentary about how the student journalists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL navigated their school mass shooting as both survivors and journalists. 

Student Press Freedom Day is co-sponsored by more than 15 organizations, including the Journalism Education Association, the College Media Association, The Associated Collegiate Press, the National Scholastic Press Association, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and more. 

“In the past year, readership of student newspapers significantly increased in many places, underscoring the important role student media plays in the community in times of crisis and moments of historic significance,” said Hadar Harris. “As student press freedom faced unparalleled challenges in 2020, the movement to support it continues to grow.”

About Student Press Freedom Day

The Student Press Law Center launched Student Press Freedom Day in 2019 to raise awareness of the vital work and impact of student journalists, highlight the censorship and prior review challenges student journalists face, and underscore the importance of journalism education. It is a national day of action which activates and empowers student journalists to assert their right to student press freedom. 

About the Student Press Law Center

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC.org, @splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of law, journalism and education to support, promote and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. SPLC has the nation’s only free legal hotline for student journalists. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them

21 Excellent Stories of Student Journalism Against the Odds

This list was compiled by Allison Schatz and Sian Shin of the Student Press Law Center

The theme for Student Press Freedom Day 2021 celebrates Journalism Against The Odds, and in 2020 the odds were certainly stacked against student journalists. 

Last year, high school and college journalists dealt with the consequences of a life-changing pandemic, the sudden shift to remote learning, an outpouring of protests against racism, a contentious election and more. The stories were profoundly important, and they had to report on them while confronting unprecedented health and safety concerns which changed the way in which journalism was produced, and against the backdrop of unprecedented public hostility against the media. 

Despite these overwhelming challenges, student journalists produced incredible journalism.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Students all over the country covered summer 2020’s racial justice protests and why they were happening.
  • They provided much-needed public health information about COVID-19, from data dives to evaluating school policies to exposing improper quarantining on campus. 
  • College students in North Carolina and Washington state won years-long legal battles to gain access to college sexual assault records. 
  • Others broke stories exposing discriminatory redlining policies, inequities in water quality in historically black neighborhoods and Nazi propaganda used in police training.

This list is far from comprehensive — the sheer volume of noteworthy student reporting in 2020 makes it impossible to condense here. But these stories will give you a sense of the powerful public good that comes from protecting student press freedom. 

Student journalists provide an essential service, helping keep their communities safe and informed. Yet only 14 states have laws protecting student press freedom. In too many schools nationwide, administrators want to control, and in some cases censor student reporting, When students are prevented from doing this kind of hard-hitting public service journalism, the community misses out on a valuable source of information. And students begin to question if their voices truly matter. 

It’s time for change. It’s time to protect student press freedom. 

Journalism in the time of COVID

“The faces behind COVID-19”

El Estoque, a high school newspaper out of Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California, published this interactive series of stories including pieces on the spread of COVID-19 disinformation, xenophobic backlash against Asian students, an editorial from a student whose family lives in China, and a comprehensive timeline about the pandemic. See the full project. 

“COVID-19: A data dive”

The Harker Aquila, a student newspaper from The Harker School in San Jose, California, published a stunning collection of data visualizations about COVID-19 statistics in their community and statewide. The article dives deeper than just the number of cases or deaths, adding nuances like racial demographics and risk level per county. See more. 

“COVID-19 in our community”

Cavs Connect, a student newspaper from Coral Gables Senior High School in Florida, published a series of three articles examining how the pandemic has changed life on campus, from impact on sports to safety protocols in school, and from extracurricular activities to life on campus in general. Read more. 

“Palo Verde West desk assistants encounter students with COVID outside of isolation”

Arizona State University’s State Press published an important investigative piece about the University’s conflicting protocols for managing infected students on campus. The article also detailed multiple cases of students infected with COVID-19 violating on-campus quarantine and provided compelling first-hand accounts by desk assistants who witnessed these violations. Read more. 

Reckoning with Racial Justice

“Encountering Trauma in the Classroom”

This feature article from Washington Square News, the student newspaper of New York University, digs into how Black students experience the emotional and mental health effects of being exposed to racially traumatic content in classrooms. This piece contains powerfully emotive illustrations and calls for professors at predominantly white institutions like NYU to teach with active care and consideration. Read more. 

“The 1619 Project”

Six reporters from The Kirkwood Call, a high school newspaper just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, crafted this compelling series of stories inspired by the The New York Times’ 1619 Project that aims to reframe the country’s history by centering the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The student project explored racism in their own school and community from personal experiences to redistricting to redlining policies. See the full project. 

“Protestors advocate justice for deaths of Floyd, Ramos”

During their summer break, in the midst of a global pandemic, McCallum High School journalists covered a Black Lives Matter protest in Austin Texas, staying as tensions escalated and ultimately chronicling the violent police response. Their photo essay, published in The Shield, documented police using rubber bullets, tear gas and more, all of which the students had to face down to get the story. Read more. 

“Bridging the gap: Episode 1: Diversity, Discomfort and Discrimination”

Two student publications at Duke University in North Carolina — The Bridge and The Chronicle — collaborated to create this deep dive podcast to explore race, gender and marginalization through community conversations. The first episode of this ongoing podcast features intimate and honest dialogue with BIPOC students about their personal experiences dealing with racism at Duke. Listen to the podcast

“How UGA IFC and Panhellenic recruitment hinders diversity”

Student reporters of The Red & Black published this feature article about the systemic racism ingrained within Greek life at the University of Georgia. This piece details the lack of diversity in the university’s Greek life recruitment process and critically analyzes the administration’s response through an informative interactive timeline and personal testimonials. Read more. 

Elevating Civic Engagement

In 2020, students provided crucial information for young voters about how to register to vote, polling places, acceptable forms of ID, mail-in ballots, candidate profiles and, of course, the results of the election. But they also did watchdog reporting on their local government and policies that directly affect the community. 

“Casting ballots: the politics of voting” 

A Wingspan student reporter at Liberty High School in Texas published this special report on voting, diving into critical issues such as youth participation and the history of racial gerrymandering. This reporter powerfully presents information and statistics through engaging visual graphics and a podcast feature, breaking down complex topics for a young audience. See the story. 

“In Focus: Loopholes in federal lead law left 5th Ward in the dark about what is in its water”

The Daily Northwestern reporters from Northwestern University in Illinois investigated the effects of discriminatory environmental policies on the drinking water and health of the historically Black 5th Ward in Evanston. The reporters dug deep into this issue through data analysis, visual graphics and a multi-episode podcast. See the full project.

“Staff Editorial: Antwon Stephens should step down”

High school reporters from Cedar BluePrints, the news magazine of Cedar Shoals High School in Georgia, broke the story of a new school board member lying about having graduated from their school. By investigating and critically analyzing the board member’s financial reports, reporters also uncovered a campaign finance scandal. Read more. 

“KSP training slideshow quotes Hitler, advocates ‘ruthless’ violence”

High school reporters from Manual RedEye, the student news publication for duPont Manual High School in Kentucky, broke the story that local police were using a training presentation that quoted Hitler multiple times and advocated for extreme violence. See more. 

“Climate 414”

Nine student journalists from Mount Mary University in Wisconsin reported extensively on environmental concerns affecting their community. “Climate 414” is a comprehensive project that highlights a variety of environmental issues, from solar energy in Milwaukee to zero waste coffee. The project is an example of solutions journalism meant to provide readers with actionable tasks to create effective change. See the full project. 

Targeting and Censorship of Student Journalists

Too many student journalists are censored outright by their schools. Others have to contend with budget cuts, stonewalling over records, intimidation and other less direct, but equally insidious press freedom violations. These stories are from the student journalists who fought back and won. It’s worth noting that there are many important stories we will never see because students were prevented from reporting them.

“To the district: Communication (not censorship) is key”

Students from The Central Times, the high school student newspaper out of Naperville Central High School in Illinois, published this Op-Ed in response to a previous article that the school had censored. The piece is an articulate and concise response to the perils of censorship in journalism. Read more. 

“University releases 15 sexual assault records following four-year lawsuit”

In January 2021, The Daily Tar Heel won their 4-year legal battle against the University of North Carolina system for the release of campus sexual assault records. Now, all public colleges in the state must release these records. The Tar Heel has covered the entire legal process in detail. This article discusses the outcome of the case and is a testament to persistent and tenacious reporting in the face of administrative obstruction of the truth. See more. 

“Prior Review and Student Censorship – Where’s the Line?”

The editor-in-chief of the Beachcomber, the student news site of Beachwood High School in Ohio, wrote this editorial criticizing her school’s censorship of student voices and warning of the dangers of prior review. “While I respect the administration’s desire to protect students,” she wrote. “I often wonder who their decision protected: those marginalized or those in power?” Read more. 

Documenting the Human Condition

“Live and learn” 

This human-interest profile published by Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University tells the story of a high school student who returned to school two months after being shot six times. Through the intimate story of Da’Quincy Pittman, this piece contextualizes Indianapolis’ soaring rates of gun violence and homicides. Read the profile. 

“Funded But Forgotten: Issues in foster care in New York City” 

The NYCity News Service from the City University of New York published this comprehensive interactive project with many powerful multimedia elements to describe the struggles of young people who age out of the foster care system. See the full project. 

“Reporting sexual misconduct”

Reporters from The Linfield Review at Linfield University in Oregon reported on an incident of a trustee who sexually assaulted a student. Over the course of several months, the student journalists reported on multiple stories of sexual misconduct and how the administration handled these incidents. See more. 

“WCC and community navigate addiction recovery through pandemic, quarantine, and shutdowns”

The Washtenaw Voice, the student publication of Washtenaw Community College in Michigan, published this article that delves into how members of WWC as well as the community at large have been dealing with their addiction recovery throughout the pandemic. Read more. 

Student Journalists Are Fighting for Protection After Covering the Crises of 2020

In 2020, students broke news about COVID on campus and got tear-gassed by police. Now they’re fighting for press freedom.

Check out Teen Vogue’s story about the important stories students uncovered in 2020 and how it illustrates the need for New Voices laws protecting student press freedom at the state level.

Student Reporters Could be the Fix Local News Needs. Let’s Give Them the Legal Protections to Cover More than Pep Rallies and STEM Competitions

Did you know high schoolers in Kentucky broke the story of their local police using Nazi propaganda in training materials? Another group of high schoolers in Georgia uncovered that a new school board member had misled the public about his qualifications. This op-ed in The 74 tackles the need for New Voices legislation to protect student press freedom, making the point that important stories like this only get told when students are given the freedom and support to do honest journalism.

Covid Is the Big Story on Campus. College Reporters Have the Scoop.

“University outbreaks are significant contributors to the pandemic. And the campus paper might be the only one left to cover them.” Read The New York Times‘ coverage of the unique role college papers have served in reporting on the COVID pandemic, breaking stories of outbreaks on campus, reckless behavior of students, under-prepared administrators and more.