Defending High School Journalists’ First Amendment Rights

By Iris Olson

In three years of working on a high school paper, I have seen enough controversy over stories to make the average student journalist afraid to write again.

After the 2012 publication of the Hellgate Lance’s “Valentine’s Day Issue,” when I was editorials editor, I saw high school students’ words twisted out of context and called obscene in professional news media after they caused a few adults concern. No matter your opinion on pornography, “friends-with-benefits” relationships, or Blue Mountain Clinic’s annual condom fashion show, suggesting that those who write about these topics are in need of counseling — as outraged parents told Lance staffers during my junior year — is perhaps a bit extreme. While many adults called our Valentine’s issue inappropriate, it received very positive feedback from our peers, without a single complaint from the student body.

The Lance staff may have a liberal streak, but we strive for balance in our published content. I’ve seen lengthy public discourse sparked by a Lance pro-life editorial, including the publication of a follow-up piece about an anonymous student’s decision to have an abortion. It’s these kinds of stories that have made our award-winning student newspaper well-known in Montana and journalism circles.

By the time I reached my senior year, I was voted editor-in-chief of the only remaining biweekly student paper in Montana. I’m happy to report a distinct lack of controversy this year — though not a lack of controversial material. We have a reputation for being outspoken that I don’t plan to let go unfulfilled.
It’s our belief that a news editor should be able to report a school board story that runs the risk of making administration look bad, as was the case when we covered the Missoula County Public School decision to give MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle an unpopular raise this year.

An editor should be able to write a column on the culture of sexual-assault acceptance. And she should be able to write these stories without facing censorship from a principal who is gifted with prior review, despite having never set foot in a newsroom. Hellgate, like most high schools, requires copies of all pages to be seen by the principal before going to print.
In the case of the sexual assault column, I sat in a our principal’s office and watched my editorials editor defend her story about “Slutwalks,” a national movement to end victim blaming of women who have been raped.

“But do you have to use the word ‘slut’?” the principal asked.

“It’s called Slutwalk,” the editor said. “It’s meant to be empowering.”

After 10 minutes of tense questioning (‘Is it promoting these… walks?’ ‘Will there be pictures?’), the principal asked, “Why do you think this story is relevant to our high school?”

The editorials editor struggled to find a defense. I stepped in.

“One in six women will be raped. That includes girls in this high school,” I said. I think it was at that point the principal realized we were going to publish exactly what we wanted to say.
We were able to run our Slutwalk story. But in many other high school papers, it would have never been allowed. Student journalism is right up there with banned books in libraries and sex education curriculums when it comes to censorship in public schools.

Of course, as high school journalists, we want rights. We want freedom of speech and freedom to print whatever it is we deem newsworthy and relevant to our community of peers. Unfortunately, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier made clear that high school journalists do not have the right to print whatever they want. The landmark 1988 Supreme Court case declared that public high school publications are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection than an independent (adult) paper. We may not be guaranteed our rights. But we do have the right to fight for them, and it has become increasingly important that we do so.

At nearly every budget meeting, I get asked “Can we print that?” My answer is the same: If it isn’t obscene, defamatory, libelous, or in poor taste, and if you think it’s newsworthy, you can write it — in fact, it’s your responsibility as a student journalist to write it. Overly cautious reporters aren’t the ones creating compelling content. Let the editors deal with what is and isn’t allowed.

The Hellgate Lance is lucky. When we wanted to write about the superintendent’s pay raise, our teachers and advisers tipped us off on reporting opportunities and helped us set up interviews.
When we wanted to write about Planned Parenthood, we sent a reporter to the organization’s Teen Council meeting to interview students involved in peer-to-peer sex education.

We have a legacy of free speech to uphold. This year we’ve written about gun control and environmentalism, criticized district policy and local government, and reported on nearly every activist movement to sweep through Missoula.

As teenagers, we may not be able to announce “Bong hits for Jesus.” But we sure can publish a student survey on marijuana use. We may get censured by angry parents for writing about sexuality in progressive terms. But as long as teenagers keep having sex, we’ll keep writing about it. High school journalists deserve to write about the issues that are important to them, the stories we’d like to read. And if anyone has a problem with that, know that the American Civil Liberties Union, the Hellgate administration, the Missoula community, and the editor-in-chief of the Lance have your backs.