Letter from the Editor: Freedom of Speech in High Schools

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

-First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Freedom of speech is a crucial principle in our society. As U.S. citizens, it is our right to be able to think and talk and write about what we are passionate about; our First Amendment grants us that freedom, and many people throughout the world do not have that entitlement. Now that the AHS RamPage newspaper is back after seven years, our staff is excited that we have an outlet to use our voices and represent Amsterdam High School’s student body through journalism. We, the RamPage staff – or any high schools’ students and writers – want to present facts and the opinions of our school or community through our writing. As high schoolers, we should learn and become accustomed to the laws and rights our country provides; if school administrators do not lay out that foundation for students, how are we, approaching adulthood, correctly educated? Our Constitution states that “freedom of the press” is a fundamental right; but people under the age of eighteen, and under the supervision of school administrators, are denied full access to those rights.

There have been many cases of student expression being frowned upon in school settings: some result with an override by the courts of the institution’s decision, some with increased censorship within academic programs – specifically, school-funded activities. The question that frequently presents itself alludes to teenagers’ maturity: Is it more important to uphold the First Amendment to all people, or protect younger teens from controversial or disturbing topics?

The court case that decided how censorship in schools should be handled was Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In 1988, two articles in the newspaper Spectrum (the students’ paper in the Hazelwood School District) were completely pulled from the last edition of the year; the principal had decided that one article, which addressed teen pregnancy and birth control use in the school, could upset younger kids, and the second article, which was about the effects of divorce on teens, was not well researched (the principal was unrealistic in his opinion of a “well-researched article”). The writers were upset that the articles they worked hard on were deleted from the paper without their consent. They brought their case to the courts, and ultimately, the Supreme court ruled that the school administrators had the ability to censor work in school publications that they considered poorly written or “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order”. 

I believe that an article should be well-researched; I can agree with that part of the court’s decision. Journalism is about presenting the facts so that readers can have a solid understanding of a topic – writers should not take advantage of that. However, school officials should not have the power to use “not well-researched” as an excuse when they truly don’t want certain topics revealed. In an article for The Washington Post, writers Hadar Harris and Mary Beth Tinker say “Although school districts are advised by an army of lawyers dedicated to keeping school communities in compliance, schools are made up of humans who often react to student speech with human emotion and their own internalized biases.” Journalism is at its best when it informs and challenges its readers and provides varying opinions. My argument is that this is most important for teenagers; they are in the process of formulating their own values and learning the laws of our country. 

The AHS RamPage faculty advisors, Lisa Liverio and Nancy Spagnola, had a lot to say about student expression. Liverio believes that our newspaper should disseminate information about school happenings and policies, such as attendance in the new policy for graduation. “I would love to see the newspaper write something about the importance of attendance. That’s the biggest issue right now: kids are not coming to school.” 

Spagnola states that she wants the paper to be the students’ voices. However, she wishes for us to have the same oversight and rules as professional newspapers. “I believe students have the right to freedom of the press, but anything that would be considered illegal in a professional publication (libel) should definitely be avoided.” 

When I asked our principal, Tyrone O’Meally, what he considers an inappropriate topic for school newspapers, he responded, “Inappropriate stories are pieces that are based on negative assumptions or opinions and not on facts. We want stories that highlight “us”, and do not look to destroy individuals or groups. At some point we have to recognize that AHS is a great place to be.” Students at Amsterdam High School are lucky that we have the support from our advisors, teachers, and administrators. Many other schools are more restricted; officials have different levels of tolerance for certain topics, which complicates a journalist’s life. We at the AHS RamPage are grateful that our administration encourages freedom of the press: without a clear understanding of the First Amendment, kids have not received a proper education.

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