Free Speech for Young Journalists Still Hamstrung by School Discretion

WONDERING WHETHER their free speech rights will ever fully be recognized by Virginia’s legislators are Lasso staffers Sequoia Wyckoff (left) and Colter Adams. (Photo: News-Press)

Legislation addressing free speech rights for young journalists in the state general assembly will shuffle its feet toward the finish line if it passes by allowing college students the same uninhibited speech as professional publications. But for the seedlings of the industry found in high school classrooms where the right to expression is edited by school administrators, such as George Mason High School’s staff at The Lasso, students wonder: What is everyone so afraid of?

“The only thing that it’s doing is protecting the school,” George Mason High junior Sequoia Wyckoff, The Lasso’s features editor, said. “It’s not actually making our journalism better, it’s just protecting their own interests.”

House Bill 36, commonly referred to as “New Voices” legislation, was amended in the house subcommittee to remove high school-aged students from the free speech protections that college journalists could now be afforded. If the bill does become law, it will be seen as the smallest step forward by Wyckoff and the newspaper’s managing editor, senior Colter Adams, but it doesn’t reflect the larger problem of student censorship.

The Lasso has found itself on the forefront of this issue for over three years now. Back then, Mason alum Kate Karstens’ story about the Ivy-league bound son of the Falls Church City school board chair and his triple-digit absences in his senior year caught the eye of the school’s former principal. An order came from the administration to take the story down, but after some stiff resistance from Karstens, the report was allowed to go through minus the exact number of absences the student had.

The now-senior at the University of North Carolina and staffer at the college’s newspaper, The Tar Heel, Karstens worked her way up the legislative ladder to try and enshrine the first amendment protection into law.

At first, she pleaded her case to the F.C. School Board in the fall of 2016 to amend School Board Policy 9.46, which gives the school’s principal final approval over what is published in the paper. The board punted on the issue at the advice of its lawyer, who said it would be a break from what other school systems were doing. Karstens spoke at the state legislature during the 2019 session when New Voices was first proposed, but the bill failed to make it out of committee.

Those who spoke against the bill in 2019, according to The Lasso’s teacher and adviser Peter Laub, were the head of the state’s principal’s association and the head of the Virginia School Boards Association. The arguments generally put forward by the opposition, he recalled, were that students were too young to make informed judgments with their free speech rights, ignoring the fact that producing a school newspaper isn’t done without supervision.

“That’s the part that people skip over. They just assume that it’s a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario, which it’s not,” Laub said. “The first week of school I have them memorize the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists. That’s our class rules. You break those, that’s not like I’m censoring you; you’re breaking the rules and expectations of the profession.”

Luckily, Falls Church City Public Schools is supportive of their right to free expression, with adviser Peter Laub’s (third from right) nomination as Teacher of the Year serving as proof of the quality product that he and the students put out. (Photo: FCCPS Photo/Marybeth Connelly)

Advocacy for the cause has not only abided by those rules, but exemplified them at Mason. Adams co-wrote a story last June that outlined the waffling legal history of student free speech protections and combined that with original research showing the discrepancy in national awards between states with and without New Voices legislation.

Supreme Court Justices affirmed student journalists’ right to free speech in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), as Adams wrote, and prompted the formation of the Student Press Law Center to ensure those protections were upheld. But a second case two decades later, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988) clipped the reach of free speech when the work of student journalists was reclassified as “supervised learning experiences.”

The new distinction, and how individual states responded by providing their own legal protections for students, created a noticeable difference in the quality of a given school’s work. Adams compiled data from student newspapers in all 50 states and found a significant difference in the number of Pacemaker awards won by National Scholastic Press Association publications with and without New Voices protections.

Thoughts of “what could have been” likely passed through the minds of students who experienced some of the administrative censorship, such as the nearby Fauquier High School principal who killed an investigative piece on marijuana use that Adams cited. It’s acts like these that can contribute to a lethargic attitude in student newsrooms as the fear of having their work spiked can dissuade reportage into more gripping topics.

“There’s this unmeasurable component which is self-censorship because there are so many stories we could probably name and story ideas about certain things we can’t pursue,” Adams said. “The Hazelwood court ruling…says that student journalists aren’t operating as a public forum, they’re operating as an educational experience. But if you’re in a journalism class, then the educational experience is to operate as a public forum, so you can learn how to be a public forum.”

Fortunately, The Lasso staff has no horror stories to report from its own end since Karstens’ run-in years ago. Wyckoff, Adams and Laub all praised the school system and Mason principal Matt Hills specifically for his willingness to let the paper publish what it sees fit — including an upcoming story that’s critical of the school’s schedule and how it isn’t accommodating to students who celebrate Jewish holidays.

The two young journalists agreed on nearly everything on this topic except for how they felt toward their future profession. Adams, who intends to pursue a career in political and legal journalism, admits the threat of censorship has made him a bit more cynical about the purity of the institution. But Wyckoff, who plans to be a reporter, takes a different stance. The issue has made her and others more passionate as well as more interested in First Amendment law.