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U.S. Supreme Court,
Constitutional Law,
Civil Rights

Jan. 2, 2018

When the high court handcuffed student journalists

High school journalism has been losing ground since the 1970s due to education budget cuts -- and rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

0102 ldj myrow
The cover of the last edition of L.A. Youth, January-February 2013.

"People with mental illness don't always live on the streets or end up in a psych ward. They can have normal lives. I have struggled with hearing voices, but I'm getting myself through it. I heard noises on and off every day. The noises slowly got worse and progressed to voices that told me to kill myself or kill others. My parents took me to a doctor. He decided to put me in a hospital for 72 hours. The hospital smelled like gloves and medicine. It was not a happy place to be."

This wasn't the kind of story found in a traditional high school newspaper. It was an important story for "Brian," 16, to write after a long bout with mental illness. He worked on the story with an adult editor at L.A. Youth, a newspaper by and about teens, for more than a year. Brian's story generated letters from teen readers who described their own struggles. But it might never have appeared in print had it not been for a U.S. Supreme Court decision 30 years ago.

High school journalism has been losing ground since the 1970s due to education budget cuts. The student press was dealt another blow on Jan. 13, 1988 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that administrators had the right to censor articles intended for publication in school newspapers. The ruling was a body blow to the independence of the student press. Two decades earlier the court had seemed to go in the other direction. In an Iowa case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, involving an anti-war protest, Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority, stated, "Neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Within hours of the Hazelwood decision I decided to start an independent teen-written newspaper. With no money, no office space or even a computer, I gathered a dozen high school youngsters around my kitchen table and told them we're going to put out a newspaper they could call their own. I appointed myself publisher, editor, head fundraiser and chief delivery person.

In our first year, we published two issues, circulation 2,500. Twenty-five years later we published six issues annually and circulated 70,000 copies. We distributed the paper, free, to 1,300 teachers in middle and senior high schools throughout greater Los Angeles, every library and community agencies.

L.A. Youth tilted strongly toward personal journalism. Some of our investigations result from a concern that when awful things happen to teens, almost no one seems to pay attention. Teen staffers Jennifer Clark and Katrina Gibson began one such project by prowling through records at the Los Angeles County Coroner's office. Their assignment was to reconstruct the lives of young people killed by violence during a one-month period in the county. We knew that most would be homicide victims, their lives ended early by guns and knives in gang initiations, scuffles with police, drive-by shootings and so on. L.A. Youth would try to put faces on some of the victims, whose deaths generally went unnoticed by the outside community. Morgue records yielded home addresses and next of kin information for the victims. Jennifer and Katrina sent off letters to parents or other survivors, asking for photos of the teens and anecdotes about their lives. We would publish their obituaries.

While most school administrators throughout the country fell into line with the Hazelwood decision, California's Student Free Expression Law, acts as a counter to the ruling. Education Code 48907, passed in 1977, affirms the right of high school newspapers to publish whatever they choose, so long as the content is not explicitly obscene, libelous or slanderous.

The California law didn't stop the assistant principal at South Gate Middle School who decided that L.A. Youth published "objectionable content" and banned the paper from his school. He claimed that several parents "complained about some of the articles" (code for "stories about gay teens"). We decided not to argue with him and removed South Gate Middle School from the distribution list.

Two months later when the next issue was published we received a call from teacher Bob Tanner, "Where are my copies of L.A. Youth, I didn't get them?"

I told him the assistant principal banned us. "He can't do that," roared Bob. "I'm the area union rep and I have rights as a teacher to use material in my classroom that I feel is beneficial to the students. Send me L.A. Youth."

Bob Tanner's name was back on the list and we never heard complaints from South Gate again.

The Student Press Law Center, based in Washington, D.C., was established in 1974 to provide free legal assistance to high school and college journalists. Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the center since 1989, says the phone hasn't stopped ringing since Hazelwood. Many other states followed California's education code with broader student press rights including Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and Rhode Island.

The law aside, journalism teachers who find themselves in struggles with a principal often have to tread carefully. The brave soul who defies the principal may discover next semester that the journalism budget has been sliced in half or worse.

One teacher told me, "I've only been at this school for a few years and the principal has implied that my services won't be needed here next year if I cross him."

Another, highly frustrated, said, "My principal won't allow a gay student to write about his experience coming out to his parents, even after they've given permission."

Principals can pull a story from high school papers before press time but now they're out of luck. Today, the internet reigns powerfully as students hit a send button.

Sadly, fewer young people are pursuing a journalism career. I recently surveyed 65 L.A. Youth alums to learn about their education and careers after high school. Today, few work in radio, TV and print. When I asked a former teen writer why the numbers are small after the joy of publishing stories in L.A. Youth I had to agree with her answer, "newspapers are dying there's no future for me." One alum currently reports for a public radio station in Rhode Island, another is a general assignment reporter for News 4 in San Antonio, TX, ESPN in New York, and Agence France Presse in Chicago. A few work for digital production companies. The biggest complaint among former teen journalists is shrinking internships at media companies to expose them to a future journalism career.

American schools should create media literacy curriculum for students in kindergarten through high school. Media literacy is required in Canada and many European schools. Teachers and parents can train children to distinguish accurate reporting from politicians "fake news" accusations. There are lessons to be learned from the 2016 elections when foreign countries illegally gained access to our Internet planting stories that twist the truth and influence outcomes. Student press has as much responsibility as mainstream media to accurately investigate and report stories without running the risk of losing their independence.

The presses stopped rolling for L.A. Youth in February 2013, we were hit hard by the recession. Our archives are available to students and educators worldwide at UCLA Special Collections Library. We're a necessary idea. Young voices in journalism are so important. It's one thing for a student to read a textbook chapter on immigrant rights -- another to read a first-person account written by another teen. Beyond that, I'm hoping that youth-produced media will move the discourse among teens from apolitical to activist. Uncensored student press can equip them with the tools to engage in civic responsibility.


Ben Armistead

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