New Voices U.S.

A toxic lesson of censorship

Frank LoMonte

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Editorial originally published in The Baltimore Sun

There’s an urgent consensus that young people are entering the electorate under-prepared to take ownership of their democracy — and Maryland’s legislature has a chance to enact a proven civics-education reform that costs zero dollars.

The New Voices Act (SB 764 by Sen. Jamie Raskin) would add Maryland to the growing list of states that protect student journalists against retaliation merely for writing articles that address controversial political issues or reflect unflatteringly on their schools.

North Dakota unanimously passed the New Voices Act last spring, becoming the eighth state to do so and igniting a nationwide reform movement. Lookalike bills have been filed in five states this year (Maryland, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and Washington).

Students need protective state laws because the courts will not come to their rescue as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s extremist 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave schools essentially a blank check of censorship authority.

New Voices laws have been around for decades and have been enormously successful in restoring common sense to schools’ and colleges’ oversight of journalism, ensuring that students can write without fear about the issues on which their unique perspective needs to be heard. But the movement has taken on added urgency in recent months, for three main reasons.

First, the effects of Hazelwood are clear, and they aren’t pretty. On the 25th anniversary of the court’s ruling in 2013, all of the nation’s leading journalism organizations took stock of the damage that Hazelwood had inflicted on education and called on schools and colleges to abandon the discredited legal doctrine.

With all of the largest professional and scholastic journalism experts assessing Hazelwood as a failure, school policymakers can no longer ignore the consensus.

Second, universal access to the Internet and social media have made censorship not just educationally unsound, but ineffectual and counterproductive. When the principal of a Chicago high school recently forbade students from writing about their dissatisfaction with changing the start time of the school day, the author simply took the article to an off-campus blog — where it received vastly more attention.

The explosion of social media has made it more urgent than ever for students to learn the values uniquely conveyed in the newsroom: balance, verification, accountability, ethics. Journalism is a solution for schools, and it’s time to stop treating it as a problem.

And finally, Hazelwood censorship is irreconcilable with the effective teaching of civics. Study after study has documented that the only effective way for students to learn how government works is to discuss contemporary political issues — exactly the discussion that Hazelwood censorship has bleached out of the school day.

A new report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, “A Crisis in Civic Education,” notes that college graduates over 65 — those who went to school before Hazelwood — performed far more proficiently on tests of civic knowledge than graduates 34 and under, who’ve lived their entire educational lives under the yoke of legalized censorship. It can no longer be debated that an education system where the discussion of social and political issues is regarded as a punishable offense is ill-preparing students for citizenship.

Recently, the University of Kansas surveyed 900 high school journalists about whether they felt empowered to have an impact on issues of public concern. They found a direct link between working in a newsroom where First Amendment freedoms are valued and a student’s sense of civic efficacy.

The bottom line: Schools that respect student voices produce civically engaged graduates.

At a time of declared national emergency over the state of civic learning, it is educational malpractice to send the brightest, most inquisitive students out into adulthood having been taught the toxic lesson of censorship: that questioning government policies makes you a bad citizen.

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A toxic lesson of censorship