Student Journalists Are Fighting Back Against Censorship

“A lot of adults think that high school journalists just want to cover their school’s football game. … [But] we are the next generation of the media.”

Student Journalist are Fighting Back Against Censorship

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

When the yearbook staff of duPont Manual High School proposed a spread about the LGBTQ students at their school, adviser Liz Palmer didn’t anticipate any problems. It wasn’t until after the 2009 yearbook went to print that the Louisville school’s principal made a homophobic comment about why the student publications couldn’t have LGBTQ content.

The teen staff came into school on a Saturday, Palmer said, to cut the story out of all 1,200 copies with a razor.

Student Journalist are Fighting Back Against Censorship
Sally George. (Courtesy of Liz Palmer)

The school has since changed principals, but while Manual journalists now have more autonomy, censorship is still common in school journalism programs nationwide. That’s why Lily Wobbe, a Manual junior, and Mia Maguire and Emma Wright, juniors at Bullitt East High School, are advocating for Kentucky’s House Bill 187, the New Voices Act, which restores high school press freedom.

Since 1988, when the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that educators could limit student speech based on “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” students have been censored for “virtually anything,” said Hillary Davis of the Student Press Law Center.

A 2016 study found that 38 percent of high school journalists had been censored, and that girls were more likely to be censored than boys.

HB 187, which is awaiting placement in a committee, establishes that student journalists “have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media.” It prohibits most prior restraint and bans retaliation against media advisers for protecting their students’ reporting. The bill is similar to laws that 14 states have passed as part of a nationwide, grassroots movement.

Student Journalist are Fighting Back Against Censorship
New Voices advocates in Virginia. (Courtesy of SPLC)

The legislation would protect Kentucky students like Emma Taylor. After trying to report on a peer’s use of blackface last year, Taylor’s principals wrongly told her she was violating student privacy laws and couldn’t cover the incident.

“I don’t want administration to keep on interfering and scaring us into not writing things that we think need to be written about,” she said.

Stories like Taylor’s motivated Wobbe to push for HB 187.

“A lot of adults think that high school journalists just want to cover their school’s football game,” Wobbe said, “[but] we are the next generation of the media. If we have hands-on experience covering these big, important topics now, it will better equip us to cover them later on.”

Maguire and Wright’s adviser, Larry Steinmetz, said the issue is bigger than just the school. “New Voices matters for the future of not just journalism, but the future of our citizenry,” he said.

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Through their activism, the trio has developed networking, communications and lobbying skills. These will be critical in an industry where women comprise 42 percent of newsrooms and are paid less than men, according to the Women’s Media Center.

Student Journalist are Fighting Back Against Censorship
Hillary Davis speaking with students. (Courtesy of SPLC)

Davis, of the Student Press Law Center, thinks New Voices could also bring women’s stories to the forefront of journalism.

“Student journalists are overwhelmingly girls and women, for starters, so when we’re talking about silencing student journalists, we’re talking about silencing women’s issues,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that it was a story about teen pregnancy that sparked Hazelwood.”

Representative Attica Scott, the legislator sponsoring the bill, said Wobbe, Maguire and Wright are continuing that feminist tradition. She wants to ensure that Kentucky students can continue reporting like they did in 2020, when they extensively covered the murder of Breonna Taylor.

“That, to me, is feminism at work, to say that this Black woman deserves this platform, and her story deserves to be told,” she said. “They’ve covered the protests, they’ve covered policy. To me, that is feminism in action.”

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Sadie Bograd is a high school senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, and the editor-in-chief of PLD Lamplighter. She is also a member of the Student Voice Press Corps.