“Know your rights:” High school journalists discover student press law with legal experts at JEA convention


Ariana Goetting

SPLC Senior Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand presents on libel law as student journalists take notes. Many students stayed engaged throughout the presentations by asking follow-up questions and writing down important takeaways.

SAN FRANCISCO — Student Press Law Center (SPLC) legal experts spoke about high school journalists’ press freedoms to around 30 pre-convention workshop attendees at the Spring JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention on Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

SPLC Senior Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand and Staff Attorney Jonathan Gaston-Falk presented the workshop “Law of the Student Press,” covering censorship, copyright and libel. 

“[I attended this workshop because] I want to be an attorney someday,” workshop attendee Theo Evans, a sophomore at Dos Pueblos High School, said. “Currently, in our publication, there’s [only] one person who knows a lot about press law, and he’s a senior [who is] leaving. So I figured, if I’m going to join the publication again next year, I would like to learn about press law so that I can help more.”

Opening the presentation, Hiestand led attendees through the history of censorship in high school publications with the Supreme Court cases Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier as well as legal limitations on censorship. According to Hiestand, these monumental cases grappled with the First Amendment, which all Harker journalism staff members memorize in their first year on staff.  

Throughout his lecture, Hiestand described the specifics of each court case, as well as how censorship rules in school settings regressed after the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case ruling. He concluded the segment with advice on what students should do if their publications face censorship and encouraged them to cover all newsworthy stories, regardless of actions taken to conceal a piece based on content. 

“They talked about specific cases, how you can avoid running into some dangerous situations [with censorship] and how you can improve yourself as a journalist,” Aquila Co-Features Editor Vika Gautham (10) said. “Also, how you can get good quotes and report on controversial topics in a way that you can help your community understand.”

Attendees of the “Law of the student press” take notes as legal experts present. Topics discussed ranged from censorship and copyright to libel. (Ariana Goetting)

Gaston-Falk’s presentation on copyright repeatedly inspired questions from audience members, including Theo. In his lecture, Gaston-Falk named the requirements for copyright as originality, minimal creativity, fixation and expression, and he frequently quizzed workshop attendants on whether or not a work could be copyrighted. While answering questions, he discussed nuances of copyright law, such as the length for which copyright laws are applicable and who has legal ownership of copyright. 

“Some of the output that I’ve seen just in the year of being with SPLC is some really good journalism,” Gaston-Falk said. “Not all of it has to do with exposing big controversies or blowing up certain things that are controversial, but simply having confidence to make some bold assertions and being able to talk about what you’re interested in.”

To conclude the workshop, Hiestand returned to the stage with a presentation on libel law centered around printed defamation and false statements that seriously harm a person’s reputation. He debunked myths about libel law, differentiated between pure statements of opinion and libel and discussed the limits of parody and satire. 

“The underlying belief behind the Student Press Law Center is to let young people know that [their] voices matter,” Hiestand said. “They matter so much. Just understanding and respecting the authority and the value of student voices — I think that is what motivates us [to give these presentations].”

Students with questions regarding press law can visit the SPLC website or call its hotline at (202) 785-5450.