Naperville Central High School's award-winning newspaper.

Central Times

Naperville Central High School's award-winning newspaper.

Central Times

Naperville Central High School's award-winning newspaper.

Central Times

Support Us
$50
$500
Contributed
Our Goal

Your donation will support the student journalists of the Central Times by helping to fund their monthly print issues.

Recent Tweets
Instagram posts
Weather Central


  • 6 AM
    72 °
  • 7 AM
    73 °
  • 8 AM
    75 °
  • 9 AM
    78 °
  • 10 AM
    81 °
  • 11 AM
    83 °
  • 12 PM
    85 °
  • 1 PM
    86 °
  • 2 PM
    86 °
  • 3 PM
    85 °
  • 4 PM
    85 °
  • 5 PM
    85 °
  • 6 PM
    84 °
  • 7 PM
    81 °
  • 8 PM
    77 °
  • 9 PM
    73 °
  • 10 PM
    70 °
  • 11 PM
    69 °
  • 12 AM
    69 °
  • 1 AM
    69 °
  • 2 AM
    69 °
  • 3 AM
    69 °
  • 4 AM
    69 °
  • 5 AM
    70 °
  • 6 AM
    71 °
July 14
87°/ 68°
Moderate rain
July 15
87°/ 68°
Patchy rain nearby
July 16
82°/ 67°
Heavy rain

Blog: Notes From the Field, part four

This issue of Notes From the Field is the second of several that will feature Q&A’s focused on the problems facing high school papers across the country, held with several experts in high school journalism, from state and national officials to press law experts. 

These conversations will give me a good sense of the issues plaguing high school journalism in America, allowing me to answer my guiding question: “What is the best way to increase the presence of high quality journalism in public schools?” Hopefully, the answer to that question will be by addressing one of the many issues I uncover.

After speaking with the President of the Illinois Journalism Education Association for my last post, I realized that a lot of the problems plaguing high school journalists are law-related, be it censorship, a lack of understanding of the law or some other problem. For that reason, I decided to reach out to the Student Press Law Center and learn more about the issues driving students to their legal help hotline.

I was connected with Mike Hiestand, SPLC’s Senior Legal Council, who has been with the organization since 1989. My conversation with Hiestand is displayed below.

 

Q&A

Q: In your work, particularly with the hotline, are there any big, overarching problems that you see across like a lot of the calls that you’re getting, or is everyone’s problem different?

A: No, certainly there are trends. The whole reason that the Student Press Law Center was founded in 1974 [was that] they did this national survey of student journalism in high school, and they found that by far the number one impediment to students doing good quality journalism was censorship. And so they said, you know, we probably need some place where students can turn for help with that. And since then, solving censorship is the number one reason that students have called, and that’s the case both at the high school and college level. Students are doing journalism and they have all the same sorts of legal issues that professional counterparts do, but they’re doing it in this unique, weird, sometimes oppressive environment in schools, where very often they’re at odds with the people that have a lot of authority over them. So yes, censorship still is the biggest impediment. You know, lots of people think that it is “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll” stories that are censored and we do see a few of those, but not too many. The real number one reason, the number one predictor of whether a story is going to be censored or not, is what sort of impression it makes on the school. If the school officials think that a particular piece of journalism is going to make them or make the school look bad, that’s probably going to trigger censorship in all those cases. 

The other sort of media law topics that we deal with have varied over the years. Copyright has jumped to number two on the list in recent years, but we do a lot of libel [cases] and pre-publication review work, helping students to navigate open records and open meetings laws in their states. We have some reporter’s privilege cases that involve students working with confidential sources or people trying to get access to a confidential sort of work product they’re doing. My professional counterparts, the ones that work with commercial media, they’re often surprised when I tell them what we are working on because they really are exactly the same things that they’re working on. But again, it is rather unique and sometimes complicated by the environment of a school.

Q: Taking censorship as an example, I’m sure the advice is different from case to case, but what do you generally do when somebody comes to you with a censorship issue?

A: Yeah, it does vary significantly from case to case. Now, the very first question I will always ask somebody is “Where are you calling from?” Because that makes a ton of difference. The First Amendment laws were significantly altered in 1988, when the Supreme Court handed down the Hazelwood decision (more on this case can be found in the second installment of this blog, or at Oyez). That really did alter the balance that has existed for about 20 years prior to that. It gave school officials much more authority to censor student journalism content that they’d ever had before, at least at the high school level. And so, as a result of the Hazelwood case, states started passing, as a kind of a pushback, anti-Hazelwood laws. They were laws that gave students state level protection that had been taken away at the federal level. States can never pass laws that provide less protection than required by the First Amendment, but they can always pass laws that provide more and so that’s what those laws did. We now call them New Voices laws. In Illinois you guys have one of those, and that really does matter. Because Hazelwood is so bad that if it is the law that you’re working under, it can be tough to [contest censorship] if school officials are even slightly clever. They can probably disguise their censorship or set up their censorship in a way it would probably be lawful. But if you have the protection of New Voices law, it’s much much more difficult for students or school officials to censor journalism. Good journalism, as long as it meets the basics of good journalism, it’s gonna be tough for school officials to censor. So that’s a big part of it. After I’ve asked them where they’re calling from, the next thing I will do is look at the story that’s been censored and make sure there is in fact no legitimate basis for censorship. We want to make sure it’s legally clean, there’s no defamation or stuff that would invade somebody’s legal right to privacy. We just need to make sure [they have a] clean bill of health and then after that we’ll look at what the legal protections are. Sometimes if you’re not in a New Voices state, sometimes the court of law isn’t going to be your best forum for changing things. [But there is] the court of public opinion and so that’s why I always tell students that the number one thing you can do for yourself in terms of protecting yourself from censorship is just doing good journalism. That’s in your control. If you’re doing good journalism that you’re putting out, journalism that you would be able to publicly stand and defend, we can do a lot in terms of the court of public opinion. [We can] really hold school officials accountable as censors. One of the things that I found over the years is that school officials that censor [students] want to be called anything but sensors. What they’re doing is everything but censorship according to them. You know, censorship is still when you are called out as a sensor it’s not viewed as a good thing. So we make sure that we [call them out].

Q: So the point of my project is to create some sort of action. We call it an artifact in our program, but it’s something that I can make or do that will have a positive impact on the issue I’m looking at. So I’ve heard on the legal side of things the best way to go about it, or at least the more effective way to go about it, is through helping advocate for New Voices laws, but do you think there’s anything else? What do you think a good action would be in order to make a difference?

A: Certainly, these New Voices laws, they really do make a difference. And that’s why I ask that question first. If you’re in one of the 17 New Voices states, usually I’m going to be able to give you good news. So certainly advocating for that is a good thing. But you know, it’s a long process. It’s not going to address if you’re censored in a non New Voices state today, telling you to advocate for laws is not gonna fix this problem. My job has changed significantly over the years. When I first started, you know, late 80s, early 90s, there was no internet. SPLC didn’t get our first email address [for a while]. It took a long time for schools to get into that. So for the most part, the schools that I was working with were in print based student media where the school newspaper was really one of the only forums that existed for students to actually have their voices heard to say what they needed to say. And so when a student newspaper was censored back then, it was a really big deal. It’s always a big deal, but it was a really big deal because it really was one of the few sorts of forms for expression. And so we fight really hard [to stop that censorship]. As the Internet [grew] and in 2024 when we have speech tools available that are out of science fiction books, it really has made my leash for working with school officials much shorter. Whereas before we would fight tooth and nail to try to get a principal to change their mind. Today it’s like okay, give the principal a law, say “you’re breaking the law, you need to do something different,” but if they are not willing to even kind of have that conversation with you, figure out a different way to get your message out. There are just so many different forums for actually putting your work out there. One of the things [from] a few years back, there was this informal network of schools that would say, if the work in one student newspaper in, say, Texas was censored, those schools had committed to – assuming that the story was good journalism – to simply post that story on their website. So giving people in Texas and everywhere an opportunity to read a work that was censored by a principal in Texas. So it’s kind of a workaround, in a way saying, “you’re gonna censor this. Just understand you’re not killing a fact you’re probably amplifying it.” Something like that in a more formal way, perhaps having someplace where schools could sign up to offer to repost stories or something like that. It’s a different era right now. And there really are lots of sort of tech solutions to some of the problems that have plagued this

Q: I think that’s really about all I had in terms of the things that I felt needed to cover, but if there’s anything you want to add, you’re more than welcome to.

A: I can’t really think of anything. I mean, one of the things that has changed, certainly from 35 years of it to now, is how student media has taken on a more prominent role and in a lot of different communities these days. As we’ve seen, local newspapers just dry up and disappear. And other news outlets disappear. Sometimes the high school student newspaper is the only source of news. We’ve started to see that we have really been asked to have their work reviewed [by the SPLC to ensure it won’t result in any legal issues]. That’s a trend at least until we fix our news environment right now. I think it’s a trend that’s going to continue for a while.

Q: What kind of legal issues are happening in the community?

A: Censorship [is still] mostly at the school [level]. But a number of colleges have a particular kind of community-based recording projects where students really are the ones that are [covering local news now]. A Pew study just came out with the fact that 9% of the state house reporters in the country are college students. So the state legislatures are now covered by student journalists. And so we’re starting to see a formalization of where student journalists are definitely going out and doing a lot of that reporting, whether it’s at a state house or at the local city council or something like that. And we’ve agreed to help student journalists do that sort of work. 

 

Conclusions

Censorship is clearly a significant problem faced by high school journalists. New Voices laws are great, but as Heistead said, they aren’t immediate solutions; they don’t do anything for the students being silenced now, and it takes months (if not years) of work to get a law passed in a state. I did, however, really like the idea of publishing censored works by alternating means. Creating a forum for this kind of work seems well within the scope of something I can do, and sounds like something that may become the end product of this project.  

 

Upcoming posts

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more interviews, including a conversation with an employee of School Newspapers Online (SNO), a company that helps build websites for many high school (and college) publications. I will also be speaking with a leader of the National Scholastic Press Association, and am working to schedule more conversations with other figures in student journalism.

I’ll be posting on my X account (@jpfeifferCT) whenever new posts come out, so follow me there to make sure you stay up to date on my blog.

Leave a Comment
About the Contributor
Jake Pfeiffer
Jake Pfeiffer, Editor-in-Chief
Jake Pfeiffer is a senior, entering his third year on the Central Times staff, this time as Editor-in-Chief. Jake joined CT as a sophomore because he wanted to write news, but since then he has grown to love just about every element of journalism. While it is rare to see Jake anywhere other than the CT office, occasionally you can find him captaining Central’s debate team, watching baseball, listening to a seemingly endless amount of podcasts or drowning in college applications.
Donate to Central Times
$50
$500
Contributed
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All Central Times Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *