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Home > Reading Room > Youth must get the message about the value of a free press

SPJ Reading Room

Youth must get the message about the value of a free press

Irwin Gratz

When did you first become interested in journalism? Was it at your college newspaper? As a newspaper deliverer? Maybe you came to the business in adult life, making the jump from some other profession. It wasn’t until college that I decided on a career in radio news.

But I later realized my interest in this field went all the way back to elementary school. I loved presenting information to my classmates during “current events” sessions. I remember, too, that I wished we would do it more often.

Now, as someone who both works in the field and worries about its future, I find myself wondering again if schools are spending enough time on “current events.” Maybe a lack of teaching about Freedom of the Press and the importance of news is why the Knight Foundation found that 44 percent of high school students who expressed an opinion agreed the First Amendment “goes too far.”

Or maybe it has something to do with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling in 1988 that allows high school administrators to censor student publications. That ruling was recently applied to The Innovator, the campus paper at Governors State University in Illinois.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled by a 7-4 decision on June 20 that “Hazelwood’s framework applied to subsidized student newspapers at colleges as well as elementary and secondary schools.”

As Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, reminded those attending our District of Columbia Chapter awards banquet in June, what can we expect of students whose direct experience is that they can do journalism only if it’s submitted to school officials for prior review? How do we expect them to feel the “freedom of the press” if their stories can be censored?

Many of us tell young people that journalism is a craft, and that the most important learning is done in newsrooms rather than classrooms. There’s some truth to this. But we ignore journalism education at our peril. Young people form their views of the world early, and it’s essential that SPJ and its members make sure young people get the right messages about the value of a free press and the responsibilities involved in being a transmitter of information to the public.

SPJ tries to do its part. We engage high school students throughout the country with our annual essay contest on the First Amendment. Though the contest is national, we do rely on our chapters to help get the word out and assist in the judging. Does yours participate?

SPJ does even more for college journalists. Our campus chapters help students network with professionals; our chapter grants help fund some of those programs. We regularly form task forces of professionals to go to bat for college journalists denied their full, First Amendment rights by school administrators either ignorant of the law involving college journalists or simply acting in defiance of it. We have a representative on the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

And what about those elementary schools? Others have picked up the ball here. The Newspaper in Education program began 50 years ago to provide newspapers to schools as a resource to use in learning about the world. The program’s sponsor, the Newspaper Association of America, provides a teacher’s guide to introduce the First Amendment to all grade levels. The First Amendment Center also offers a program for schools willing to create “laboratories of democratic freedom, and demonstrate how schools can provide all members of the school community with opportunities to practice democracy and uphold inalienable rights.” But the list of participating schools is small when compared to the number of grade schools in the entire United States.

Within the next year, SPJ hopes to mount a major public outreach effort centered on our Code of Ethics. I wonder if we don’t need to direct some of our efforts to our younger, most impressionable citizens. A number of years ago, I returned to my elementary school in the Bronx and spent a day meeting with classes and talking about my career. I made sure to mention how much I enjoyed “current events” when I sat at their desks. You can do that. Go back to elementary school, or high school, or college and tell your story. Let the kids learn about the importance of journalism from us, the people who understand it best, before other influences make them into one of those high school students all too willing to say that the First Amendment “goes too far.”

Irwin Gratz is the local host for “Morning Edition” on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

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