Give student journalists ownership of their papers

by Andrea Otanez, Seattle Times

Amped up on clips from "All the President's Men," five of my journalism students left Everett at 4:15 a.m. on Friday for an 8 a.m. hearing in Olympia.

It wasn't a field trip, or mandatory. They made the bleary-eyed pilgrimage of their own volition (and gas money) to learn about free speech and freedom of the press. And they were not alone.

Student journalists packed Hearing Room A to hear about — or testify in favor of — House Bill 1307, which, if made state law, would prevent high-school and college administrators from censoring student media through prior review.

It also would prevent administrators from disciplining student-media advisers who refuse to "suppress the protected free expression rights of student journalists." And it would protect schools from liability for student expression unless school officials interfere with or alter the content of student expression.

Many newspapers at colleges and universities around the state have long operated without the threat of prior review; such protections are written into some campus bylaws. It's different at many high schools.

Many school officials consider prior review their duty — to protect students from inappropriate content, or to protect the school and students from embarrassment or lawsuits.

But if students aren't making their own editorial decisions, are they really learning journalism?

Lauren Salcedo has been the editor in chief of The Clipper, the student newspaper I advise, for a quarter and a half. She quotes Stephen Colbert and sometimes doodles hearts during meetings and on her homework.

She was at the hearing and sat right next to me. At times I felt her whole body nodding in agreement with the lawyers, teachers and students testifying in favor of the legislation.

I'll let her answer the question:

"I will never be a professional cyclist if I cannot remove my training wheels. I will never be an Olympic sprinter if I cannot leave the starting block. And, it will take me a lot longer to become a responsible journalist if I am denied the right to freedom of the press as a student journalist.

"State Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, is sponsoring a student-media bill that would allow high-school and college students to publish newspapers without fear of prior review from school administrators. In other words, the bill would finally be a step toward upholding the Constitution. The right to a free press is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Why hasn't that right been extended consistently and equally to students in high schools and colleges for all these years?

"As the editor in chief of a college newspaper that does not fall under prior review, I have the ability to publish what I feel is most newsworthy. My newspaper is careful about what it prints. We do our absolute best not to print inaccurate information, and we check and recheck our facts before going to press. We strive not to publish anything inappropriate or without value because we would lose readership and credibility. We treasure the right to publish a quality newspaper.

"At a hearing last Friday for House Bill 1307, a high-school journalist captured how I approach the responsibility of my job. A room full of student journalists behind her and the House Judiciary Committee members peering down at her, she said she has learned 'that it's not about what I can do, but what I should do as a journalist.'

"We make mistakes, but so does every other publication on the planet, and we use the complaints and constructive criticism to learn and to improve our skills. If the professional press were subject to prior review, there would be no Woodwards, or Bernsteins, or Edward R. Murrows. And there would be no check on the power of the government.

"Student journalists must be given ownership of their newspaper.

"When student journalists are liable for what they publish, they will be careful, they will uphold the journalistic code of ethics, and they will not shame the newspaper for which they work. If they do, they must face the consequences of their actions: That is the only way to shape careful, intelligent and responsible journalists of the future.

"House Bill 1307 will allow students to ride their bikes without training wheels and to run where they want to.

"Yes, students will hit potholes or stumble, and publish stories that might lack journalistic integrity. But if we are not given the responsibility of being a good journalist, we will not learn how to exercise the responsibility of being a good journalist.

"So, our request is simple enough: Let us learn."

And I promise to teach and advise.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey