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Commentary: Student journalists need ‘New Voices Act’ to protect freedom of school-based reporting

By Brennan Eberwine, Cooper Bass, and Ramona Pierce
Kentucky student journalists

This month with the help of Senator Gerald Neal, student journalists spurred the filing of SB 132, The “New Voices Act,” a bill to protect the freedom of school-based reporting. The need for more just, democratic Kentucky schools is especially apparent in a time when the free press in the Commonwealth and the United States is struggling.

Brennan Eberwine

Kentucky has been hit hard by the consolidation, closure, and commercialization of local journalism. However, the genesis of journalism’s woes cannot be separated from the weakening of scholastic journalism programs across the state. The programs themselves, which comprise an essential pipeline to sustained, quality coverage that is both informative and transparent, appear to be both underserved and under-examined. None of the sources we investigated—the Kentucky Department of Education, Western Kentucky University’s Office of Student Publications, and the Kentucky Press Association—keeps close track of high school journalism across the state, but anecdotal evidence from students we have surveyed and interviewed suggests that the vast majority of Kentucky public high schools lack any sort of student journalism program at all. Furthermore, established newsrooms are primarily concentrated in large schools with magnet programs, as well as within student bodies from disproportionately higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

In an era in which education and classroom experiences are plagued by political polarization, resources that provide for and enrich schools’ potential as engines of democracy and student voice hold unique power. Scholastic journalism–alongside the rights and agency of its student writers–is a critical tool in shaping and strengthening the future of the journalism field, as well as in supporting young people to tell the stories from inside their education experience. A lack of student journalism is a lack of an essential feedback loop about what is working or not in Kentucky education.

In schools without a newspaper altogether, pressing issues can go unacknowledged.

Cooper Bass

Hayden Watkins, a Rowan County Senior High School junior provided a ready example: “My school’s student government tried to amend the school’s dress code to include the confederate flag as a hate symbol but was shot down almost immediately by administration because they didn’t want to rock the boat. [But] without rocking the boat, several students in my school still feel unwanted and unheard.”

Student journalism programs are a direct avenue towards ensuring equity is not just articulated, but also implemented. Arnav Dharmagadda, a Russell High School senior, who also has no newspaper in his school explained how the benefits of student journalism transcend the impact on the student journalists themselves: “Student journalism is a highly effective avenue to create accountability for a system that works for all.”

The New Voices Act effectively promotes scholastic journalism as it protects it. It specifies that student media may be censored only if it is libelous or slanderous, contains an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates state or federal law, or incites students to violate the law or school policy or disrupt the orderly operation of a school. The bill further protects student media advisers who refuse to censor student journalists.

Those worried about the legal implications of a freer student press can take comfort in the evidence. Libel and other content-based lawsuits against student newspapers are extremely rare. This is from data derived from more than 170 years of combined legal history in 14 other states with similar laws.

The bill establishes that the work of student journalists does not reflect the views of a school. Students within a school setting do not and should not have the same rights as experienced professionals because of a school’s goal of being a safe, effective place to learn, and this bill further affirms that.

Ramona Pierce

We know through experimentation with youth-led education research, analysis, storytelling and advocacy that primary stakeholders—students themselves who spend upwards of 35 hours each week observing schools up close—can play a powerful role in holding schools accountable. Robust high school journalism allows for students to examine their education with a critical eye and  better supports young people to serve as the current, and not just future, education improvement partners we can and should be. And although most students are not old enough to vote, access to strong journalism programs ensures that we are not too young to have a voice in the democratic process.

Please join Kentucky’s youth journalists in recognizing Student Press Freedom Day on February 23rd and supporting the New Voices Legislation.

Brennan Eberwine is the editor-in-chief of Manual RedEye and a senior at duPont Manual High School. Cooper Bass is a sophomore at Bullitt East High School and is the content editor and social media director of Livewire. Ramona Pierce is a senior at Danville Independent High School. She is also an editor of The New Edu and coordinates the Kentucky Student Voice Team’s Press Corps.

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