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October 17, 2006

The Student Press Law Center and the Future of the First Amendment

I recently published this post on my blog, but it fits into recent discussions here at the C3 blog about social networks, blogging, and convergence in the journalism industry.

Some of my most formative experiences involved working as a student journalist -- first in high school and then in college. As someone who took seriously my responsibilities to my community, I found myself on multiple occasions in battles over the censorship of the student press.

Most memorably, when I was an undergraduate at Georgia State University, we tried to do a special issue of the paper focused on the adult entertainment sector in Atlanta. There were a large number of strip clubs, porn theaters, and other such operations not far from campus which students drove past on their way to school and we decided to provide some insight into what went on there. Inquiring minds wanted to know and all of that. When the issue hit the stands, the administration was all over our backs and the editor of the paper quickly capitulated, pulling the paper from distribution. A bunch of my friends went around collecting the papers before they could be destroyed and then we organized a group of students to distribute them in brown paper bags as a protest of the pressures put on the paper by the administration. We later ended up defending our choices as journalist before a hearing conducted by the Student Government, which had been stung by criticisms of its policies and campaign tactics and saw this issue as a chance for pay back.

Several years later, I got involved in advising a high school newspaper editor who decided to stand up to the principal and the school board who wanted to stop him from reporting news about controversies going on in his school: he took the school board into court and won what was then a fairly groundbreaking case in student press law.

All of these experiences have left me with enormous respect for the work of the Student Press Law Center, a watchdog group that monitors struggles over censorship of student produced media and provides resources for editors who want to assert their First Amendment rights. A recent visit to their site showed a range of information which seems relevant to readers of this blog.

The website reports on a recently released study on the Future of the First Amendment, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which looked into young people's attitudes towards free expression. Among the studies findings was evidence that there has been a significant increase in the percentage of students who have studied the First Amendment in their classes (up 14 percent since 2004), that 64 percent of students favored the right of student journalists to publish what they want without prior restraint (up from 58 percent two years earlier), and that 45 percent of students (compared to 35 percent just two years ago) believe that the First Amendment "goes too far" in protecting the rights of the media. We can see this last statistic perhaps as evidence of the climate that has shaped this culture since 9/11 -- where criticism of the government's position gets read by a significant percentage of Americans as unpatriotic or "going too far."

The site provides interesting coverage of the ways that the Deleting Online Predators Act might impact student expression, focusing on the uses of MySpace and other social networking sites for political activism:

David Smith, executive director and founder of Mobilizing America's Youth, the Washington, D.C., based group that operates, said that many students ...are finding that social networking sites can be "a great tool for social activism."

He said this was demonstrated particularly with the rallies that took place in the spring against congressional anti-illegal immigration legislation. In March, thousands of high school students across the country, including an estimated 40,000 in Southern California, walked out of school in protests, many of which were organized in part on MySpace.

"There was so much conversation, at least within the Beltway, saying 'Where did this come from? This issue, we didn't realize it was so hot out there, so how could you mobilize tens of thousands of young people?'" Smith said. "It seemed like it came out of nowhere, when if these people were actually on these various sites and had been able to be privy to these different conversations, they would have realized that these conversations had been happening for a long time, and because of the way social networking sites are designed, it's easy to activate people and get them to do stuff offline as well."

And although Mobilizing America's Youth was not directly involved with the immigration protests, Smith said the organization uses MySpace and several other social networking sites to inform students about political issues and motivate them to get involved in the group's campaigns. One of these causes is the Save Our Social Networks campaign against DOPA.

"There are very few members of Congress that have a MySpace account, I don't think any of them have Facebook accounts," Smith said. "So they have no personal connection to these networks that millions upon millions use. They have no concept of how these sites are used positively."

Going back through their archives, one can find a really disturbing 2004 report on the growing efforts of schools to extend their authority over student expression to include things they have posted on the web which may have been produced off school grounds, outside of school hours, and not on school equipment, even if they did not explicitly target the school community. Principals have tried to argue that such posts can be subject to punishment because other students may access them on school computers, especially if they include commentary on school related issues. The report summarizes the current status of such cases:

While most courts recognize the constitutional limitations placed on public school authorities to punish students for their private, off-campus activities, a few have been very reluctant to tie the hands of school officials completely. Some courts have gone out of their way to justify schools' responses to off-campus speech, suggesting that students may not have the same rights as the general public when their off-campus school speech has a "disruptive" effect on campus. In other cases, school officials attempt to link off-campus speech to some on-campus event, such as the distribution at school of an underground newspaper written away from school.

Taken together, these three stories give some interesting data points about some of the struggles which are shaping participatory culture. Young people have new opportunites to become involved in the political process and to express their perspectives in ways which are relatively unfettered by prior restraint, but those opportunities are threatened both by laws which would block inschool access to social networking software and by school policies which might punish youth for what they do on their own equiptment on their own time. And young people are themselves, no less than others in our culture, struggling with anxieties about what constitutes an abuse of their rights to free expression and when media may go "too far."

I had a disturbing conversation the other day with one of my colleagues who seemed to believe that the First Amendment provided protections to professional journalists that extended beyond those protections allowed to citizen journalists. Many of the others around us seemed equally confused about this core principle. Nothing could be further from the case. At the time the First Amendment was drafted and amended to the United States Constitution, there was little that resembled modern professional journalism. Many of the founding fathers had written pamphlets debating the merits of Revolution against England which had been self-published. They wanted to insure the ability of all citizens to write and publish what they want. Of course, in a world where only a few had the means to print and distribute their ideas, this freedom of the press had limited application in the lives of most people. Freedom of the press did not mean that printing presses were free. We have become accustomed to hearing the professional press assert their First Amendment protections but we have had fewer occasions to think about what it means to us as individual citizens.

The emergence of new media has lowered barriers to participation in the marketplace of ideas. Now, more of us are expressing our ideas through blogs or posts on discussion forums and thus more of us are starting to feel a stake in what happens to the First Amendment.

Those of us who care about this push for a more participatory culture should pay close attention to the legal struggles surrounding student journalists and bloggers. Students are using these new media as they make their first steps towards civic engagement and political participation. How they get treated can have a lasting impact on their future understanding of their roles as citizens. In my case, struggling to defend my rights as a student journalist left me with a deep commitment to free expression. For many others, those hopes can be crushed, leaving them apathetic, cynical, and uninterested.

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