Sidhi Dhanda is a 17-year-old junior at Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts who wrote the following piece to mark the fifth annual Student Press Freedom Day. The event is meant to call attention to the fact that student journalism faces barriers to reporting on key issues. Only 16 states have laws that protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists and that mitigate the effects of the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlemeier. That case involved a Missouri high school, where students in a journalism class wrote stories for the school-sponsored and funded newspaper called the Spectrum that focused on teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce. Before publication, the principal deleted pages that contained the stories without informing the students.
Some students sued and the case reached the Supreme Court, where justices upheld the principal’s censorship actions, expanding the control that school officials have on student speech. Sidhi Dhanda said that her interest in journalism and writing started with encouragement from an English teacher, who suggested she participate in Headliners in Education, a summer student newspaper. She liked it so much that she signed up for a few journalism summer camps, and began writing, publishing pieces in some national news outlets — the Los Angeles Times and Education Week — as well as for her local paper, the Hopkinton Independent.
“I have always loved stories, ideas, people, and words. For me, writing/journalism has been the intersection of all that,” she said. Here is her piece.
Online mobs are now coming for student journalists
By Sidhi Dhanda
“I almost gave up on my one-week-old journalism career a few hours after I saw my first byline. My article was published in Headliners of Summer, a summertime student newspaper. I was eagerly awaiting congratulatory messages from the friends and family members I shared the link with when I received a text from a manager, one of the people I interviewed, requesting that I edit my article to be more positive or unpublish it. They felt my story negatively portrayed them.
I was terrified. The article was a lighthearted, short feature about a local boat rental place and its revival after the pandemic. It was not an exposé. Yet, I had clearly upset someone.
My experience is typical for student journalists. Many of us have angered someone because of a story we wrote. In Utah, school administrators deactivated the student newspaper website after student journalists published an article investigating the firing of a popular teacher. In Los Angeles, a faculty adviser for a student-run newspaper was suspended after reporters refused to remove a name in a published article.
Unlike traditional newspapers, student newspapers do not have the same protections granted by the first amendment. The 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier allows schools to regulate content in the newspapers they sponsor. This decision creates an additional layer of oversight that does not exist at the professional level, which is odd given that student journalists perform the same job as “professional” journalists. We inform people.
In news deserts, areas that lack a local media outlet, student papers often function as one, covering the town news, such as local elections, politicians and new policies. In these places, if a student paper cannot publish a story, the public will not learn about serious issues in their community.
Even in areas that are not news deserts, student journalists have written stories of great importance. A student journalist in Massachusetts published an investigative report about his school’s use of prison labor. Student journalists in Kansas uncovered that their new principal received a degree from an institution accused of being a degree mill.
The First Amendment enabled student journalists to publish these articles. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier does not remove those rights for student journalists, but it complicates them. Without student newspapers controlling publication, these stories may have never been told.
Student press freedom is about restoring the first amendment and press rights of student journalists and their advisers. Student Press Freedom Day is celebrated nationally on Feb. 23 to bring awareness and advocate for student press freedom.
Student journalists, like professional journalists, cannot publish anything they want. Everything we write has to be wholly based on fact and written objectively. We cannot be intentionally malicious or hurtful.
Only 16 states, including my state, Massachusetts, have laws protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists, preventing censorship or self-censorship (not publishing an article in fear of repercussion). Many do not know that student press freedom exists. As a result, many articles are taken down or never published in the first place, even ones that are not controversial. I was lucky in my situation.
I contacted my paper’s adviser, a seasoned journalist. The same day he got on a call with me. He comforted me and assured me that I had not done anything wrong. Without hesitation, he said we would not take down the story. However, we were going to give the boating company a chance to provide more information.
College newspaper reporters are the journalism heroes for the pandemic era
I spoke to the manager again, and they shared more information. I updated the article. As it turns out, they only wanted to clarify their coronavirus protocols.
Taking down my article would have been the simplest course of action for my adviser, me and the people I interviewed. But, by keeping my story up, my adviser showed the critical educational experiences that arise from having student press freedom for both the public and student journalists.
Student press freedom promotes an understanding between the media and the public. Student journalists typically tell stories that are not covered by more prominent papers. The people I interview often have their first interaction with the media with me. They can better trust journalists because they directly see what the often “vilified” media does to ensure an article is accurate. They have now seen and, as a result, understand the work journalists do.
If student newspapers cannot decide the stories they want to cover, then these interactions between the media and the public decrease. People are less informed, and student journalists lose out on learning opportunities.
Without student press freedom, student journalists cannot learn how to write fairly about events, often complex ones. We lose out on the chance to have formative experiences, like mine, that prepare us to enter the “real” world as journalists. Protecting student press freedom allows students to grow as journalists and citizens.
If my piece had been unpublished, I would not have had the courage to write articles that are critical of institutions or talk to local leaders about controversial topics. By keeping my story up, my adviser empowered me to cover more complex issues, such as gun violence, elections, and LGBTQ events, at the local level. Student press freedom works the same way. It empowers students by allowing them to publish the stories they want to tell without fear of repercussions.
Strengthening student press freedom through legislation is slowly happening across the country with the recent passage of New Voice laws in New Jersey and Hawaii. Bills have also been introduced in New York, Connecticut, Missouri and West Virginia. In addition to advocating for that legislation, individuals can support student journalists by working with the next one who comes knocking at their door. By doing this, student journalists, future professional journalists, can continue developing their skills while the public gains an understanding of the media and receives the information they need.
Student press freedom does not mean that every story published will be a bombshell article about corruption. Instead, it just gives student journalists the choice to publish any true stories they want. In essence, student press freedom is about allowing student journalists to practice their craft without fear or favor.”
Boston Tutoring Services