First Amendment Rights, Censorship, and Law and Ethics: Why Journalism Matters

This is #8 in a weekly series by NCTE member Alana Rome.  

Alana Rome

The First Amendment is arguably the most important freedom for US citizens. We recognize the value of freedom of speech and how few countries grant this right to its citizens, but the First Amendment is so much more than that.

For those who haven’t taken a government class in a while, in addition to freedom of speech, the First Amendment includes freedoms of assembly, petition, religion, and the press. Journalism students understand the nuances of that last freedom. Just as freedom of speech does not allow someone to say “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater, there are circumstances where journalists are not protected under the First Amendment, and rightfully so; therefore, scholastic journalism programs help young people understand when and how to use their voices, especially when their readership   extends beyond their teachers.

Unprotected speech includes libel and slander. While libel is written and slander is spoken, both occur when one provides a false statement that significantly damages another’s reputation. While the truth remains a defense against both charges, journalists need to be wary of legal repercussions. Fighting words, imminent threats, and obscenities are also considered unprotected speech.

Student journalists need to take extra care, though, as they function under limited or nonpublic forums. While open or public forums allow anyone to contribute to the publication, school newspapers are usually either nonpublic forums, where administration reserves the right to prior review (approving content before publication) or limited forums, where the audience expands beyond the school community and the administration has a written or unwritten policy advocating student choice in publication content.

Another restriction for student journalists is that they are not necessarily protected under First Amendment rights if their reporting disturbs the learning environment of the school. Journalism students learn about several court cases related to students’ First Amendment rights, including Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al. In this 1988 case, the Supreme Court ruled the school had a right to censor articles published about teen pregnancy and divorce that referenced specific students within the school. The judges ruled that the censorship of school publications can occur when it is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Journalism shows students in a very authentic way that considering one’s audience truly does matter. Not taking into consideration what to say and whom it is said about can land not only the journalism students themselves in real, legal hot water, but the advisers, administration, and school, as well.

Need more evidence that journalism’s focus on First Amendment rights and censorship fits the needs of English classes? Just take a look at some of the Common Core State Standards for English, grades 9–10:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.4
    Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.1.D
    Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

Alana Rome is an English teacher, newspaper adviser for Trailblazer, and soon-to-be journalism teacher at Pascack Hills High School in Montvale, NJ. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in English education, grades 7-12, both from Iona College. Alana is a contributor of English Leadership Quarterly and has provided professional development sessions at EdScape, Global Education Conference, and Columbia Scholastic Press Association on a variety of topics, including global awareness, authentic assessment, classroom technology integration and student goal-setting. 

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

2 thoughts on “First Amendment Rights, Censorship, and Law and Ethics: Why Journalism Matters

  1. What a great post.

    Clarification of the First Amendment Rights of Student Journalists is always a timely topic – too often students assume that free speech is just that – free speech.

    What Alana Rome does is clarify a seemingly simple topic into the complex and nuanced definition that it really is – especially, when working with adolescents in a public school.

    Thanks again to Alana Rome for this smart post. I look forward to reading more interesting and perceptive commentary in the near future.

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