Talking Points for Student Press Freedom Day 2022: Unmute Yourself!

Are you planning to draft an op-ed about #StudentPressFreedom for Student Press Freedom Day (Feb. 24, 2022)? Below are some talking points to get your wheels turning. This is just a way to get you to start thinking about ways in which censorship works in reality and ways in which you can use your voice. You don’t need to use them all — you can pick and choose. And always remember the personal angle. After all, you are the expert in the amazing work that student journalists are performing every day — and the many challenges you face. Unmute Yourself!

You can find more resources, including the Student Press Freedom Day logo and social media cover photos in the Toolkit.

What is Student Press Freedom Day? 

This is the 4th annual Student Press Freedom Day. Student Press Freedom Day was created by the Student Press Law Center in 2019, with three goals:

  • Raising awareness of the vital work and impact of student journalists as they report on their schools and communities,
  • Highlighting the challenges student journalists face as they are confronted with censorship and prior review policies, and
  • Empowering student journalists in protecting and restoring their First Amendment freedoms..

Each year Student Press Freedom Day grows in scope with more students, advisers and press freedom organizations joining in, writing op-eds and blog posts, creating videos, hosting events, telling their stories and building momentum for New Voices campaigns in their state.

The theme for Student Press Freedom Day 2022 is “Unmute Yourself!” We hear that phrase on video calls nearly every day (sometimes multiple times!) but student journalists are often muted — either by administrative censorship or by self-censorship. Student Press Freedom Day is a day to UNMUTE, to tell your stories freely, boldly and without interference.

Why Celebrate Student Journalists?

  • Journalism is critical in maintaining a free and open civil society and robust democracy. 
  • Journalism education teaches students how to ask hard questions, discern truth and to value facts. These are qualities that shape informed citizens. 
  • Student journalists, like professional journalists, provide an essential, constitutionally-protected public service to their communities by gathering and delivering vital information on issues of public concern.  They should be recognized and fully supported for the crucially important service they provide. 
  • Student journalists are providing this service against many odds, including threats of censorship, budget cuts, the uncertain school environment due to COVID, the personal toll of isolation, risk of assault and harassment during protests or public gatherings, and much more.
  • Young journalists provide a unique, essential perspective at this time. They understand and can identify issues that their older colleagues might miss. They speak their readers’ language and provide a trusted forum for young voices to share their concerns and have their questions answered. 
  • With many schools operating with restrictive COVID policies, and many sports and social events suspended due to the pandemic, student media is often the one unifying force and culture-builder on campus. It also provides a unique conduit for important, credible information student-to-student.
  • Student-run media outlets and student journalists often fill the gaps left behind by diminishing or dying local news media in news deserts, all while juggling school work. 

Recognize and Reject Self Censorship

  • Self censorship occurs when student journalists choose not to pursue a story out of fear that their story will not be allowed to be published, or they will experience retaliation from administrators or those who hold a form of power over them.
    • These stories are often about poor administrator conduct, malfeasance, or controversial social issues. 
  • When student journalists are protected from retaliation, they are able to pursue and truthfully publish stories that are important to them without fear of reprisal.
  • Since the US Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemeier, public school administrators have abused the broad standard established in the case that allows schools to censor student work for just about any reason, including stories that make the school “look bad”. 
  • Under Hazelwood, student journalists actually have fewer rights than the general student body solely because they are journalists.
  • Student journalists are not the only ones to self-censor. After more than three decades of Hazelwood, journalism advisers also internalize the threat of censorship and may knowingly or unknowingly dissuade student journalists from investigating or reporting stories that would be controversial or embarrassing to the school. 
  • Another way administrators censor student journalists is through their advisers. Educators are sometimes fired for standing up for their student’s right to publish when administrators wish to censor their student’s stories.
  • Many of the students who share their stories of self-censorship with SPLC indicate that they didn’t know they were engaged in self-censorship at the time.

Unmute Yourself: Use Your Voice for Change 

  • With Student Press Freedom Day, student journalists are challenging the outdated belief that a  journalist’s job is to report the story, not to be the story. In advocating for student press freedom, student journalists must be able to share their stories.
  • The identities and experiences of student journalists are valuable resources for ensuring complete and truthful reporting. Student journalists should not feel pressured to conceal their backgrounds under the guise of reducing bias. 
  • The voices of student journalists and their stories must be shared to raise awareness of the challenges they face.
  • Student journalists are the closest media voices to the student body and they have a unique insight into the needs of students and whether their schools are meeting their needs. 
  • In 2022 it’s very hard to truly censor something. Social media and the ability to self-publish mean that the story will get out even if school administrators try to prevent it.  But student journalists must be empowered and equipped to tell their stories. 
  • Participating in student media is civics education. Student journalists learn to critically evaluate complex sets of information and express their perspectives. 
  • Across the country, many student journalists are participating in New Voices, a student-powered nonpartisan grassroots movement of state-based activists who seek to protect student press freedom with state laws.
  • In places where such laws exist, they are working with advisers to ensure the laws are understood and respected. 
  • Just last month, New Jersey became the 14th state to protect student press freedom through state law.

Censorship of Student Journalists

  • Administrative censorship and prior review is widespread in high schools due to a free speech exception that the U.S. Supreme Court carved out for student journalists in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision. In an ideal world, no student journalist or adviser would ever be faced with a censorship conflict. But censorship is anunfortunate reality for many.
  • Student journalists’ efforts should not be limited or censored, especially during the COVID pandemic. Rather, they must be supported and encouraged for providing an essential service to the community during these difficult times.
  • Targeting of students includes schools attempting to discipline students for posting anything on social media that could reflect badly on the school.  
  • Student journalists have been prevented from attending important meetings and often have to fight to obtain information in the public interest.
  • Censorship of yearbooks has increased as yearbooks reported on the pandemic school year, the election and racial justice protests around the country. As the pandemic continues, the Student Press Law Center anticipates this trend will continue. Yearbooks serve as an important archival record, and censoring them not only impacts current students, but those who will look to yearbooks years from now as a historical record of school life during a global pandemic.  
  • This year more than ever, students dealt with budget cuts, sometimes wielded as a form of censorship. In some cases schools have wanted to gut student media programs and have used COVID as an excuse to implement general budget cuts that squeeze publications, require more ad revenue be raised by students, cut access to vital technology, etc.

Elevating Civic Engagement

  • In 2020, student journalists covered historic elections and played a critical role in helping young people push back against voter suppression, obtain accurate information, and make their voices and votes count. They will play an equally important role in 2022.
  • Youth engagement in elections is growing and increasingly important.  Despite efforts to suppress the youth vote, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 52%-55% of youth voted in 2020, and their impact was decisive in key races across the country. Student journalists’ role in covering elections and providing information about candidates and vital issues on the ballot is also important. 
  • With so much at stake, student media highlighted information related to college students living and studying away from their family homes who have to establish residency in their new locations to register to vote. They detailed the many states who have prohibited the use of student ID cards for voter identification and required in-state drivers’ licenses. 
  • Outside of the elections, students led efforts to expand and codify press freedom protections at high schools, colleges and universities through the grassroots, non-partisan New Voices movement, and achieved key successes.