Talking Points for Student Press Freedom Day 2021: Journalism Against the Odds

Are you planning to draft an op-ed about #StudentPressFreedom for Student Press Freedom Day (Feb. 26th)? Below are some talking points to get your wheels turning, but don’t forget the personal angle. After all, you are the expert in the amazing work, against the odds, that student journalists are performing every day! 

What is Student Press Freedom Day? 

2021 marks the 3rd annual Student Press Freedom Day. Student Press Freedom Day was created by the Student Press Law Center in 2019, with three goals:

  • Raise awareness of the vital work and impact of student journalists as they report on their schools and communities (including the important role they play filling gaps in news deserts).
  • Highlight the challenges student journalists face as they are confronted with censorship and prior review policies.
  • Showcase the contribution of journalism education to engaged civic life.

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 and building momentum for New Voices campaigns in their state.

The theme for Student Press Freedom Day 2021 is Journalism Against the Odds in acknowledgment of the phenomenal news coverage student journalists have produced despite being faced with incredible challenges of a year consumed by not only a global pandemic, but widespread racial justice protests, a major election and a rise in targeting and censorship of journalists.  

Why Celebrate Student Journalists?

  • Journalism is an enabling force in maintaining a free and open civil society and robust democracy. 
  • 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. 
  • Student journalists are providing this service against many odds, including threats of censorship, budget cuts, the sudden shift to remote learning and the personal toll of isolation, risk of exposure to COVID, risk of assault and harassment during 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 schools operating remotely 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. 

Journalism in the Time of COVID

  • As the education system in our country was upended by COVID-19, and the entire school experience was reimagined, student journalists had a front row seat to report on the experiences of more than 76 million students (pre-K through university), their families and their teachers. 
  • Most often, the stories about challenges posed by education in the time of COVID-19 related to distance learning and testing, and the role of technology, privacy and accessibility, came from student journalists.
  • Student journalists continued to report on issues of public health and community concern, moving from past reporting on lead pipes in schools or health violations in the cafeteria, to vital reporting on mask mandates, overcrowded hallways (when schools went back in-person), social distancing and quarantine violations on campus,  and community spread.
  • Students were also a source of unbiased and accurate information for their peers, overcoming pushback to break stories about critical public health issues related to campuses that many students were residents of. 
  • Student journalists have revealed gaps in the communication between administrators and students, shared how the pandemic has affected sports and other extracurricular activities and reported on the particular experience of exchange students whose home countries are facing lockdowns.
  • This past year, the actual process of journalism itself had to be transformed. Students navigated the difficulties of publications that stopped printing and publications that rapidly transitioned to online formats – an entirely different economic model. They also faced budget cuts to journalism programs.
  • With no sports, plays, assemblies or pep rallies, student press became the glue holding campus culture together through the yearbook and the newspaper.  

Reckoning with Racial Justice

  • From censorship of stories related to students of color or harassment of journalists of color to microaggressions in newsrooms and disparities in investments in journalism programs in majority-minority schools, racism in student journalism is not a short-term issue and will require intensive, ongoing work by everyone in the media community. 
  • Black students face structural barriers impeding them as they seek to report their truths and serve as journalists in their school communities and beyond. 
  • Underinvesting in and chilling the speech of Black and Brown student journalists sets them up for a lifetime of believing that their voices don’t matter and that their role as journalists is not important. They do and it is. 
  • Student journalists have boldly reported on issues of race and representation, sparking important conversations beyond their schools.
  • Representation matters and the voices and experience of Black journalists matter as they help to shape robust fact-based reporting. 
  • Students of color and allies are highlighting the racism they see and experience or that calls them to action in incredible ways

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 an unfortunate reality for many.
  • Student journalists’ efforts should not be limited or censored during this critical time. Rather, they must be supported and encouraged as part of providing an essential service to the community during the current COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
  • Targeting of students includes schools attempting to discipline students for posting social media which could reflect badly on the school.  
  • Student journalists have been prevented from attending important meetings and they often had to fight administrators to obtain information in the public interest.
  • Censorship of yearbook content is increasing this year, as yearbooks reinvent to report on the pandemic school year.
  • 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 they have used COVID as an excuse to implement general budget cuts that squeeze publications, require more ad revenue be raised by students, and cut access to vital technology, etc. 

Targeting of Student Journalists 

  • Student journalists have demonstrated their brave reporting throughout the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and they continued to report bravely at a time of unrest in cities and towns across the country.
  • As protests escalated, student journalists faced real threats of violence and arrest, not to mention the risk of contracting the coronavirus when social distancing protocols are not observed.
  • When police engage in crowd control, journalists – especially students, who may be unrecognized by police officers – often find themselves rounded up and jailed along with the participants they’re covering. Despite identifying themselves as journalists, they are arrested or targeted.
  • The Press Law Center received many more legal questions and requests this year from students covering protests.
  • The U.S Press Freedom Tracker documented an alarming number of attacks on journalists in 2020. For instance, Julia Lerner, a student journalist at the University of Maryland, was chased by police and maced three times while covering protests in Columbus, Ohio, in the early hours of May 30. The staff of The Commonwealth Times at Virginia Commonwealth University were repeatedly targeted by Richmond police officers.
  • At some protests, students were arrested and tear gassed even after identifying themselves to police, suggesting an intent by some law enforcement to thwart journalistic coverage of important events
  • Students also got in trouble for breaking curfews even though media are exempt from those curfews in the service of providing an essential service to the public.

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. 
  • 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. Youth turnout was much higher than in 2016, with the youth share reaching 17% of the overall vote.
  • With so much at stake, student press 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.