Censorship Education Press Freedom Tamar Sarai

Student Journalists Nationwide Face Administrative Censorship and Challenges

School newsrooms are essential to aspiring reporters and communities with news deserts, but many face challenges from censorship to a lack of resources.
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By Tamar Sarai / Prism

In the age of social media, with new platforms emerging seemingly every few months, high school newspapers are just one outlet where young people can share their voices and relay the stories of their lives. Yet student-run newsrooms play a profound and unique role not just in the school community, but also in the broader media ecosystem surrounding each campus. 

The power of student media is perhaps most obvious in cases where student-led newsrooms break major news. In 2017, The Booster Redux, the student-run newspaper at Pittsburg High in Pittsburg, Kansas, made national news when a simple profile on the school’s new principal led to an investigative story revealing that she had lied during the hiring process and attended an unaccredited university for her master’s and doctoral degrees. The principal resigned shortly after the students’ reporting garnered the attention of national news outlets. Just last May, reporters from The Classic, the award-winning student newspaper of Townsend Harris High School in Queens, New York, brought to light a sexual abuse scandalthat went uncovered for years.

Student reporters have seen their stories get picked up by larger media outlets with varying levels of acknowledgment of their original reporting. This April, The New York Times published two stories about a recent policy shift at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School that eliminated all-girls swimming classes in favor of co-ed courses and the impact it had on Muslim students. The story was first covered in The Spectator, Stuyvesant’s student-run, independently operated newspaper, and the Times cited the original article

“So the Times got in touch with the writers and the editors in charge of that article, [and] they ran an interview process, everything was fair,” said Khush Wadhwa, a junior at Stuyvesant and a reporter for The Spectator. “But some other news outlets generally are less fair and kind when it comes to managing that content and choosing to take from us.” 

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Even when they are not fully or adequately acknowledged by professional media outlets, student-led newsrooms are undoubtedly part of the broader news landscape, both taking cues from and informing larger local and national outlets. As the number of professional jobs in local news dwindles, student media outlets are necessary to supplement the news diets of local community members and hone the skills of those who will become news leaders in years to come. However, the tribulations that aspiring journalists and storytellers sometimes endure at the pre-college level reveal the obstacles that come with preserving and creating opportunities for meaningful youth journalism. 

Censoring new voices

On a snowy day in February, 53 students from across New York State—including Wadhwa—traveled to Albany, New York, to talk with legislators about the Student Journalist Free Speech Act, a bill to ensure that high schoolers have editorial control over their school publications, including newspapers, yearbooks, podcasts, literary magazines, and broadcast media.

Despite a 1969 Supreme Court  ruling that preserved students’ free speech rights—stating that “students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates”—a subsequent  decision in the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier dealt a huge blow to student journalists nationwide, ruling that high school administrators are constitutionally allowed to censor stories in school-sponsored student publications so long as that story poses a “legitimate pedagogical concern.”

“The trouble is that since ’88, a lot of people have had a hard time defining what a ‘legitimate pedagogical concern’ is because it can be different from Buffalo to Brooklyn, and different principals can have a different take on it,” says Michael Simons, a teacher at Corning-Painted Post High School and adviser for the school’s yearbook. “And therefore, we can have a different result, different outcomes in student media, and that’s not fair.”

For the past six years, Simons has been an advocate with New Voices New York, a grassroots coalition working to pass the Student Journalist Free Speech Act. New Voices NY exists in a constellation of different groups fighting for free speech legislation in their own states. Thus far, 17 other states, including New Jersey, Maryland, and most recently West Virginia, have passed their own versions of New Voices legislation or have some other legislation protecting student journalists against censorship.

In New York, the Student Journalist Free Speech Act would prevent students from being disciplined for exercising their right to free speech and would allow them to fully determine the content of school-sponsored media. The legislation would also protect faculty advisers from discipline or retaliation for protecting student journalists who cover stories or create content that is protected by the bill. Notably, the bill does not protect any coverage that is libelous, invades privacy, violates state or federal laws, or incites students to disrupt school operations or commit crimes.

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, who serves as the bill’s sponsor, was initially drawn to the legislation and the New Voices movement because of a personal link. In high school during the Vietnam War, Lupardo was among a group of student journalists who created an underground newspaper where students could express their opinions on the war, “much to the consternation of school officials,” says Lupardo. 

“So I have a personal interest from long-ago history, but currently, it has become increasingly obvious to me that this work is needed to help students … with critical thinking skills [and] learning about media literacy,” says Lupardo. “In the era of fake news and many students getting much of their news from questionable social media outlets, it’s become increasingly clear to me that this could be the perfect antidote for that. I know I’m getting [a story] that was written by the student, and I can trust that story to be true because it was done with journalistic standards.”

Given the vagueness of existing restrictions around student media, the type of censorship that students experience can vary from district to district and school to school. Nationwide, it has ranged from hot-button political topics such as immigration or abortion to exposés about the schools’ infrastructure that may be embarrassing to administrators or local leaders. Lupardo says school administrators have censored students across New York for stories about mental health, environmental justice, sexual harassment, and more. 

“Isn’t it better that we can teach them research skills and critical thinking and identifying reputable sources and pursuing problem-solving and equipping them with the skills to report the story responsibly, rather than go off half-cocked on social media because they’re frustrated?”MICHAEL SIMONS

“There are administrators who are more or less sensitive to student observations and may perceive them as criticisms or as complaints as opposed to an interest in being a partner in improving the high school experience,” said Lupardo.  

This is the sixth year that the Student Journalist Free Speech Act has been under consideration by New York’s legislature. While it has enjoyed bipartisan support, Lupardo says that opposition has come—especially in the most recent years—from some school administrators who fear that, as schools are seeking to restabilize from the pandemic, controversial school coverage could disturb operations.

In local NPR coverage of the students’ trip to Albany, Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, a group that opposes the bill, argued that controversial stories could intensify political tensions in the broader community. Ruffling feathers, Lowry argues, could either cause a district to shut down the schools’ newsroom or lead community members to exercise their veto power over local school budgets. 

“I can absolutely appreciate that somebody in town might be frustrated, concerned, disappointed that students are covering a particular topic,” said Simons. “[But] telling students, ‘You can’t talk about that topic because it might make somebody in town angry, and we can’t have that because they might vote down our school budget’ … I think, in that thought process or that way of thinking, there’s a lot of danger for who gets to green light and red light what we’re allowed to talk about and where those limits are.” 

Simons also notes that simply telling a young journalist that they cannot discuss a certain topic almost ensures that they will just find another avenue to do so. When students are only given the option to use social media, for example, their thoughts may be expressed, but they aren’t able to make use of and learn from a team of advisers and peers—opportunities that a newsroom could best provide.

“Isn’t it better that we can teach them research skills and critical thinking and identifying reputable sources and pursuing problem-solving and equipping them with the skills to report the story responsibly, rather than go off half-cocked on social media because they’re frustrated?” asked Simons. 

Just as school administrations can explicitly censor student publications in various ways, school power dynamics create chilling effects on free speech that student journalists must navigate. Interestingly, many students who have become fierce advocates of the Student Journalist Free Speech Act are journalists at school-sponsored publications that operate with few administrative restrictions. Saniya Bhagwat, a senior at Brighton High School in Rochester, New York, attended a journalism conference and heard Simons give a presentation about the bill. Bhagwat, who used to write for Brighton’s paper and has recently started The Bloom, an online paper that will serve students from schools across the greater Rochester community, was quickly inspired to join the New Voices movement because of—not despite—the privileges her newsroom enjoys.

“Instead of wanting to censor us and silence us or control us, [our advisers and administrators] want to work with us, so we can create a paper that actually represents student perspectives without being silenced by adults,” said Bhagwat. “I realized that through [Simons’] presentation that not a lot of other students have that privilege, and that made me really upset to know that other students don’t have that opportunity to freely discuss school and community issues in their paper without having to be terrified that your principal is going to censor them.” 

Similarly, when Wadhwa and his fellow staff members at Stuyesant’s Spectatorlearned about the legislation last December, they got involved even though they enjoy many of the rights that the bill would extend to other student newsrooms. 

“Because of the limitations of Hazelwood … you have a situation where content can be blocked at any time for any reason,” said Wadhwa. “At schools where ‘controversial topics’ like LGBTQ rights or racism are becoming more and more of an issue for teenagers but some in some cases are being suppressed, it becomes a little bit sad, and you have to look at it from that angle and say, ‘Oh, I do want to help out.’”

The Student Press Law Center has yet to identify a single case successfully brought against student journalists. While that detail may bolster the argument of opponents who feel that the legislation is not needed, Simons says that the censorship that the bill would help quell operates in ways that can’t always be quantified but is often captured in the anecdotes he hears from students.

“The thing that’s really insidious about student journalism and censorship is the power dynamics at play: It’s really easy for a principal to shut down a bunch of teenagers, and it’s really easy for students—especially female student journalists—to internalize the messaging of ‘that topic doesn’t go’ or ‘that’s off limits,’” said Simons. “And when it turns from active censorship from an administrator and evolves, sadly, into self-censorship or a kid saying ‘there’s no point in even bringing that up at the editorial meeting because we know Principal Jones won’t let us write it,’ then that’s just awful because that self-censorship is really pernicious and really, really hard to overcome.” 

Youth news deserts

If the cost of censorship is limited reporting—which can in turn limit students’ beliefs and agency—then the price of not having a student media outlet at all is hundreds—if not thousands—of untold stories. While some students and faculty advocates across the state are pushing against censorship in their school-sponsored newspapers, others are striving to get their papers. 

Lara Bergen was teaching a mixed-grade summer class when she decided to start a journalism course for her students. She was quickly inspired by the passion they had for reporting.

“I found that I enjoyed the journalism class the most because I just saw the students enjoying it so much more and learning so many more really valuable communication skills that you could just see them applying for the rest of their lives, as opposed to writing an essay,” said Bergen.

Bergen would later leave the teaching field but hold on to her belief in the power and potential of youth journalism. In 2021 she founded Press Pass NYC, which assists teachers and students who want to launch newsrooms in their schools through training, workshops, and resource sharing, like a student editors bootcamp hosted every August. It aims to fill in the gaps in the city’s youth media landscape where a staggering number of schools are without their own newsrooms. 

According to a survey conducted by Baruch College’s High School Journalism Program, an initiative that supports high school student journalists and provides them with news literacy education, fewer than 30% of NYC non-charter public high schools have newspapers, while 100% of the city’s specialized high schools, like Stuyvesant, do. The study, entitled “Haves and Have Nots,” found that city high school paper prevalence has only declined over the last 14 years. As the report’s name indicates, access to school media is an inequity that falls acutely along race and class lines. Schools with high poverty rates and higher percentages of Black and Latinx students are less likely to have student newspapers than those with low poverty rates and higher percentages of white and Asian students.  

While the growth of online publications has provided a more accessible and affordable avenue for aspiring school newsrooms, beginning a school-sponsored media outlet requires dedicated training and resources. 

“The schools that you see that have great legacy news publications have a journalism class somewhere along the line that’s a prerequisite for students to apply to be on the newspaper [staff],” said Bergen. “I think there are other school districts in the country where teachers get extra money for advising the school newspaper and even extra prep time … [It takes] having a vision to build in that time in the schedule that makes it easy for the students to participate [alongside] all their other demands.”

Schools that partner with Press Pass NYC via their teacher fellowship must sign a memorandum of understanding where school administrators acknowledge the need to support teachers who invest their time in leading a student newsroom. Other effective tools for helping to get a new school media outlet off the ground include providing extra credit to student journalists and establishing a solid infrastructure so that when teachers leave or students graduate, institutional knowledge of how to operate the school’s newsroom remains.  

Baruch’s “Haves and Have Nots” report also notes that it can be challenging for some school papers to receive as many resources as STEM programs and that some of them see their funding reallocated to those areas. But former teachers and current advocates like Bergen say that the skills conferred through journalism training have real value outside the newsroom, even for students who don’t intend to go into careers in the news. Research has shown that students who participate in their school paper also see better academic performance in other subject areas.

“You just feel more engaged in school and in the work that you’re doing,” said Bergen. “Students were so proud to share what they had worked on, and other students were so impressed to see what other students could do.”

In addition to funding, Bergen says that local media outlets can help support student journalism by forging what could prove to be mutually beneficial relationships with young reporters. In addition to showing students how a professional newsroom operates, news organizations could also increase their young adult readership by having student journalists contribute to their coverage. However, even in a media capital like New York City, Bergen has found it challenging to convince outlets of the value of such partnerships.  

“I do send emails all the time to small neighborhood newspapers, trying to connect them to high schools, and it’s hard; I don’t get a lot of response from it,” said Bergen.

Missing voices 

Just as Bergen’s interest in student journalism sparked during her time as a teacher, so did Taylor McGraw’s. In 2017, McGraw and Adrian Uribarri founded The Bell, a nonprofit organization that initially began as a podcast amplifying student voices on the issue of school segregation. Since then, the organization has grown into one of the most successful student podcast training programs in New York. Their programming includes an internship for students interested in reporting on the organization’s podcast “Miseducation,” a three-week Summer Youth Podcast Academy taught by media professionals, and the creation of the NYC Youth Journalism Coalition

The number of aspiring student journalists who attend schools without newspapers and other media outlets is a consideration for the organization when accepting applicants into their programs, and it was also the subject of a special reported series by the “Miseducation” teamEntitled “Missing Voices,” this four-part series took a deep dive into the inequities in the city’s high school journalism landscape, the experiences—and at times struggles—of students attempting to start their school papers, and what these disparities mean for the media industry as a whole. 

Jayden Williams was one of the students who produced and reported the series. Williams graduated this spring from Bard High School Early College, a school that, like other screened schools in the city, has its own student-run paper. In reporting the “Missing Voices” series, Williams helped highlight the disparity between schools across the city. 

“I found it interesting being able to go to schools that don’t have these programs and don’t have this funding and [seeing] how it’s a huge problem,” said Williams. “It really has a negative impact on students. They could have had all these opportunities, but they weren’t given them.”

“I made a story about my dad and [how he] unionized his workplace as an electrician. So even through the process of journalism, I was able to learn more about my family.” JAYDEN WILLIAMS

While Williams’ alma mater has its student publication, his first experience with journalism came through The Bell. He says that he has always been more interested in audio stories than print because of the emotional impact that can be fostered by hearing someone tell their own story. Growing up, he was particularly enthralled by his father’s stories and hoped eventually to possess the same narrative capabilities. When he was accepted into The Bell’s Summer Youth Podcast Academy, he used it as an opportunity to capture some of those stories that have personally inspired him. 

“Taylor really gave us the freedom to just tell our own story out front, cutting no corners, just fully raw, and put it in a podcast form,” said Williams. “I made a story about my dad and [how he] unionized his workplace as an electrician. So even through the process of journalism, I was able to learn more about my family.” 

After the three-week Summer Youth Podcast Academy, Williams continued working with The Bell into the school year by joining the “Miseducation” team and producing the “Missing Voices” series. He says that massive investment should be made into student media opportunities by the Department of Education, which currently seems to focus on funding students interested in pursuing careers in STEM. The unwillingness to prioritize student journalists negatively impacts not only individual students, but also the collective causes that they care about. 

“Only one-fourth of schools have journalism clubs or programs, and I think it’s particularly tragic because today I see students who are more interested in activism and spreading awareness about issues than ever,” said Williams. “Maybe there is a protest that’s being organized or something like that, and not many people know about it. But that could be because the school doesn’t have a newspaper to talk about that protest or cover the reason for that protest.” 

The cost of silence

In many ways, the youth journalism landscape speaks to trends within the professional field, with the lack of resources for school newsrooms mirroring the shuttering of local newsrooms and the rise of news deserts nationwide. According to a 2022 study conducted by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, since 2005, the country has lost more than 25% of its newspapers, and it’s projected that one-third of the American newspapers that existed two decades ago will be out of business by 2025. 

Further, given the link between youth journalism access and future success as a career journalist, the absence of a large swath of student voices can help us make sense of the gaping holes in current national coverage and the lack of diversity across the professional field. 

According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey of journalists, 76% of those surveyed were white, 8% identified as Hispanic or Latinx, 6% as Black, and only 3% as Asian. The pipeline of student journalists to career journalists, coupled with cost-prohibitive journalism schools, only exacerbates these inequities.

The “Miseducation” reporting team focused their fourth and final episode on illuminating the clear pipeline between participating in student media and becoming a career journalist and how diverse voices become locked out of the industry when schools composed of Black and brown students don’t have those outlets to begin with. For instance, having clips or published news pieces is often required to enter early career internships. For many aspiring journalists, those clips come from reporting done at their student papers. 

Media outlets could heed the suggestion of advocates like Bergen to create opportunities for aspiring student journalists who are locked out of the industry by not having their own school-sponsored media. That investment is one that McGraw and students like Williams would also like to see be prioritized. However, it would require a shift in how older people, including professional journalists, see and value young people and their capacity as storytellers and critical thinkers about how news impacts their lives.

“Adults assume that students don’t make good journalists because we don’t have experience in the ‘real world’ or because we don’t know enough about politics or about culture and we haven’t lived through it enough, and as a result, I’ve noticed—and it’s very indirect—but I often get kind of infantilized, and my work is belittled because either I’m not getting money for it or I’m young and I’m writing about [for instance] abortion rights and I know nothing about that topic, apparently,” said Brighton High School student Bhagwat.

When this stifling of political voices is considered alongside the staggering disparity in access to student journalism opportunities, it becomes clear that the student journalism landscape doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of thoughts, backgrounds, and experiences held by young people across the country. 

While proponents of New Voices legislation argue against the idea that student journalists taking on meatier, more politically charged pieces will ruffle feathers in their cities and towns, the relationship between these young reporters and their surrounding communities is still significant. Youth journalists don’t create the issues they report on but are affected by them. The censorship of their voices stands to quell political dissent and exacerbate the impact of these issues, whether they range from climate change to reproductive rights. Students’ perspectives on how these impact their peers reflect larger national and global issues that society must reckon with.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.