Censorship must be resisted on all fronts, at all times, wherever conflict occurs. Nowhere is that message more important than in our schools, and that’s why we applaud a newly reintroduced bill aimed at preventing administrative censorship of student newspapers in New Jersey high schools and public colleges and universities.
The bipartisan legislation sponsored by Assembly members Gail Phoebus, R-Sussex, and Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, would be similar to a Maryland initiative that has already been signed into law. It is rooted in concerns that oversensitive school officials have been preventing student publications from using certain stories of which they disapprove. That’s insufficient cause to ignore First Amendment principles, and the bill would forbid any requirement that all content be subject to administrative review before publication.
The goal here isn’t to give students free rein to ridicule teachers or classmates. The legislation would require school districts to develop policies governing freedom of expression complying with the dictates of the bill. Libelous or slanderous material would not be protected, nor would anything deemed as an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”
But a story reporting on questionable school-board activities? Or a student editorial critical of a school policy? That kind of responsible journalism couldn’t be pulled just because an administrator didn’t like it.
School officials too often exhibit arrogance in squelching negative stories, as if somehow students are exploiting the freedom which they’ve been given. But this isn’t a corporate environment in which every employee is expected to pull for the team. This is about education; journalism students should be learning the importance of seeking out and reporting the truth, not worrying about who they might anger in the process. Schools should be facilitating that lesson.
The message is important not only to would-be journalists but the entire student body. We live in an increasingly image-conscious communications era in which every misstep can be subject to a cannonade of social-media vitriol, generating hypersensitivity to criticism. As a society we also suffer more and more from a myopic view of the world; it isn’t difficult for anyone to limit their own media exposure to voices echoing their own thoughts and values and, more darkly, their own biases. When all you’re hearing is like-minded opinions, disagreements can be that much more jarring. The polarization of our political discourse owes much to this phenomenon.
In that environment, censorship pressures grow. Empowered by the constant reinforcement of their own viewpoints, citizens often have less tolerance for counterpoints and less respect for those with a different perspective. If school officials mirror that mindset by censoring opposing views of their own actions, they’re effectively teaching students that the world is a place where you toe the line, find your own kind and ignore reality. That’s not a world in which any of us should want to live.
We support the legislation, and encourage school leaders to set a responsible example for young journalists who will soon find themselves navigating a world where truth too often is in the eye of the beholder.