Limiting student press bad precedent

By Carol Singletary: Guest columnist

Quick. How free is the American press? With our First Amendment protections, we should be setting the standard for freedom in the press, right?
Wrong.

The Reporters Without Borders fifth annual World Press Freedom Index places the United States 53rd out of 168 countries (we tied with Botswana, Croatia and Tonga). The primary reason we placed so low on this list involves government control of information released to the press, and thus to the public.

We need to raise a society that won’t stand for this. Sunshine Week (Sunday through Saturday) originated to shine sunlight on government proceedings. Although this is an important initiative, it is not the only way to ensure a free press with access to government proceedings.

This is what we need to be teaching in school. We should be encouraging high school and college students to produce a free and responsible press. This will teach an entire generation to demand a press which shows what our government is doing.

Washington and Oregon both have bills working their slow way through the system, which would remove the power to censor the student press (both high school and college) from school officials (who are arms of the government).

As Rep. Dave Upthegrove, sponsor of the Washington bill, said, this is “a civic education issue. I’m worried young people are growing up without an appreciation for the First Amendment and all their constitutional rights. I’m worried about what that means for the next generation.”

I am worried as well. I see principals, school board members, college presidents, even newspaper publishers across the country who see nothing wrong with teaching our future leaders it is OK for the government to control the content of the press. They would not describe it that way, but that is what their control of student newspapers means.

Why do administrators feel the need to control the student press? Why do they need to keep students from writing about what is happening on campus? As a Feb. 12 editorial in USA Today reported, “The probable answer is the same one that blocks democracy in Iraq, Russia and any number of other places in the world: When those in power find free speech uncomfortable, they’re tempted to squash it.”

Can students be trusted to make content decisions on their own? What if they make mistakes? That’s when real learning occurs. As Diana Mitsu Klos of the American Society of Newspaper Editors points out, “We should all ultimately stand for the principle of student rights, embracing the value of experiential learning — even when the results aren’t always perfect.”

The very best way to teach students to be responsible is to let them be responsible. The best way to teach accountability is to make students accountable. It is our job as a society to prepare the next generation for life in a democracy. A first step is to encourage our students to produce and expect a free and responsible press.

This, together with initiatives like Sunshine Week, will bring the U.S. back to the top of the World Press Freedom Index where we belong. Like so many of our fundamental values, a free press must be protected or we risk losing it forever.

Carol Singletary teaches journalism at Clovis High School. Contact her at:
csingletary@plateautel.net