Opinion: Censorship in Student Media

As long as student media programs have existed, rules have been in place about what they can and cannot publish. Although many have argued that censorship of student journalists violates the First Amendment, the law is not on their side. In the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court ruled that although the First Amendment protects students’ right to free speech, it does not apply to school-sponsored publications. Legally, schools reserve the right to choose not to publish content deemed to be inappropriate.

There are definitely circumstances in which censorship of school-sponsored student media is justifiable. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that published content is age-appropriate for students and does not encourage bullying or other harmful behavior. However, the definition of “appropriate” is open to interpretation. This opens the door for abuse of censorship policies at the expense of all students.

On May 19th of this year, staff and students at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska were informed that their school newspaper, Saga, had been terminated. This came three days after the publication of Saga’s June 2022 issue, which included three articles related to the LGBTQ community and Pride Month alongside other content relating to student life. According to a Northwest employee, the publication was terminated because “the school board and superintendent [were] unhappy with the… issue’s editorial content.” Zach Mader, Vice President of the Northwest Public Schools Board, cited “editorials that were essentially, I guess what I would say, LGBTQ” as a key factor in the decision to end the publication, suggesting that this type of content was “inappropriate.”

Saga’s termination has been cited by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska as an example of viewpoint discrimination, which “occurs when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction on speech.” In simpler terms, Saga was terminated not because of any legitimate educational concern but rather because the district disagreed with the views on the LGBTQ community that were being published. 

Although there is controversy as to whether this type of censorship is truly illegal, it contradicts the democratic values that all levels of the United States government, including local school boards, are meant to uphold. Furthermore, it places students participating in student media programs at a disadvantage by prioritizing the subjective “appropriateness” of the content they publish over the quality of their education. 

The purpose of student media first and foremost is to teach students about journalism. By preventing them from writing about controversial topics, schools also prevent students from learning how to cover these types of stories, a skill they will need if they pursue a career in journalism.

Although the wrongful termination of a high school newspaper in Nebraska may seem like a faraway issue, censorship is a barrier to student journalism everywhere. Apex High School’s newspaper (Legacy) and Cultural Media Literacy (CougarTV) programs have to keep controversial topics in mind when producing content and ensure that they are presented in school-appropriate ways. School staff in high schools across the nation have a responsibility to ensure that all media published on school-sponsored platforms is appropriate, but some of the biggest issues affecting high school students today are controversial. We students participating in school media programs can only grow as journalists if allowed to explore difficult topics without worrying about being shut down. 

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