Fight for their rights: Student publications stand up for freedom of press


Sally Zhu

An illustration of censorship of a student newspaper. The debate over student press freedom continues to rage on at the state level across the country.

NEW YORK — “First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District marked the first time in U.S. history that the federal government upheld the rights of students to express their freedom of speech within schools. But even today, student journalists across the country face predatory oversight and censorship from school administration. Forbidden from speaking up for themselves, they can do nothing but watch as school officials craft mendacious narratives about controversies, presenting their preferred interpretation of reality as the truth.

In the midst of the anti-war counterculture of the mid-1960s, five students in the Des Moines Independent Community School District decided to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War. After the school administration heard of the protest, it banned wearing armbands altogether and suspended the five students for violating its new rule.

After being approached by several civil liberties groups, the families of the suspended students sued the school district, and the case on the legality of the suspensions quickly ascended the appellate courts. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court agreed that the school district had infringed upon the students’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech. 

Tinker granted students an unprecedented amount of freedom to express themselves within school, as long as the expression did not “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” 

The decision even implied that student publications could publish stories on anything pertaining to their schools without fear of suppression by administration. But the Supreme Court rolled back some of these protections in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which declared that students could still be forbidden from saying or printing anything that interferes with learning.

The debate over student press freedom continues to rage on at the state level across the country. But one basic principle remains true: schools cannot legally prevent their students from publishing factual stories that don’t affect education. Yet somehow, students across the country face censorship for daring to mention controversial political topics or administrative failures in their newspapers and magazines.

The journalism staff of the Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls, Connecticut, experienced censorship this year after reporter Gianna Costanzo wrote an opinion piece after the leak of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. The school administration told them to take down the article after it went online for 24 hours, and afterwards, the staff was not allowed to repost or speak about it. 

“I didn’t think that would happen [at my school]. I knew there were going to be some conflicting opinions about the article … but I didn’t think it would go as far to taking it down,” Gianna said. “After, I tried contacting the administration through my advisor, and I was not able to meet with them. I reached out to a few local college professors to see how I could proceed with this. But unfortunately, nothing ever came out of it because of no response from the higher ups.”

Student journalism censorship like what occurred at the Woodland Regional High School has become a widespread issue in the United States: in a 2021 survey, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported that “60% of student newspapers at four-year public institutions faced some form of censorship” in that year. 

Everyone likes to patronize, to think they have to protect the kids. But no, you’re not protecting kids. What you’re doing in many cases is protecting yourself as administrator.

— Retired journalism adviser and New Voices advocate John Tagliareni

More recently, the Viking Saga newspaper of Northwest Public Schools in Nebraska was shut down in May 2022 after publishing articles on LGBTQ+ issues. In the same month, Adriana Chavira, the adviser of the Daniel Pearl Magnet School’s newspaper, The Pearl Post, was suspended after the staff decided not to honor a librarian’s request to have her name removed from an article about COVID-19 vaccination. 

Chavira and two students from The Pearl Post, Valeria Luquin (‘22) and Nathalie Miranda (‘22), spoke at JEA NorCal Media Day on Sept. 24 to around 250 attendees about the incident and student free speech. 

“I realized that this is so much bigger than just our publication,” Luquin said in an interview with Harker Aquila on Sept. 24. “If I could come and speak about this and encourage other student journalists, especially those who are just starting out in journalism, makes me more than content.”

Today, a grassroots movement known as New Voices aims to reaffirm the protections set in place by Tinker and overcome the limitations of Hazelwood through local legislation. So far, 16 states, including California, have passed laws that codify student press freedoms for public schools as nearly equal to those of professional publications.

Although retired high school journalism adviser and New Voices advocate John Tagliareni believes increasing sociopolitical polarization has caused student censorship to worsen in recent years, he thinks New Voices legislation sets a clear path forward for student press rights in the future.

“The New Voices movement is very positive,” Tagliareni said. “Everyone likes to patronize, to think they have to protect the kids. But no, you’re not protecting kids. What you’re doing in many cases is protecting yourself as administrator.”

Students looking for resources about protection of their press rights can refer to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), an organization that advocates for students’ freedom of the press and aims to push forward more New Voices legislation. They offer resources on combating censorship attempts and a hotline for legal questions as they push to ensure freedom of press rights for all reporters, students included.