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These Local High School Journalists Are Working to Ensure Freedom of the Student Press

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Before Claire Guo arrived freshman year at The Spoke, Conestoga High School’s well-regarded student newspaper, she already knew there’d been scandals circulating about the football team, sexism, and faculty-student relationships. “By the time I got in, the administration was very worried about the school’s public image,” says the senior, who’s bound for Yale University in the fall. “We could cover things like teen pregnancy and opioids, but you felt the invisible pressure. We’re aware that the administration is aware of us—and not necessarily in a good way.”

A Pennsylvania “New Voices” initiative could help ease tensions for student journalists like Guo and their advisors. A nonpartisan grassroots movement initiated by the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., its goal is state-by-state protection of the student press to counteract the national impact of the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, which reversed a more lenient 1969 high court ruling.

As of 2019, there were New Voices laws in 14 states. In Pennsylvania, it’s in the works as Senate Bill 806, or the Free School Media Act. The legislation is co-sponsored by state Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat serving Chester County’s 19th District. His office aims to amend the Public School Code of 1949 relating to freedom of expression for as early as the next school year. Currently, that code guarantees freedom of speech to public school students but still permits prior review or restraint. And it doesn’t protect student media advisors. “Students bring a unique, powerful perspective to journalism, and we must partner with them to protect that voice,” says Dinniman, a professor and former student newspaper advisor at West Chester University. “By encouraging young people to pursue ethical, responsible journalism, we’re also promoting free speech and critical thinking.”

The bill is now before the Senate Education Committee, for which Dinniman serves as minority chair. It’s expected to come up for a vote in the spring legislative session. It’s also garnered House support from Rep. Melissa Shusterman, a Conestoga alum whose 157th district covers parts of Chester and Montgomery counties.

(Clockwise from lower left) Conestoga High School’s Audrey Kim, Cyndi Hyatt, Hyunjin Lee, Claire Guo, Melinda Xu, Ananya Kulkarni and Tiffany He. // Photo By Tessa Marie Images.

Conestoga’s Cyndi Hyatt, The Spoke’s co-adviser along with Susan Houseman Gregory, joined students in initiating contact with Dinniman’s office. As written, Pennsylvania’s New Voices bill would prohibit school officials from participating in any prior review and forbid limiting access to school media facilities. Content selection would rest exclusively in student editors’ hands. Advisors would act “solely as an educator and consultant for student journalists” and be encouraged to provide “a lesson in media law”—a primer that might actually prompt self-censorship. “There’s a lot of self-censorship,” says Guo, The Spoke’s co-editor-in-chief. “We’re protective of our advisors. When trying something controversial or dangerous, they’re laying their jobs on the line.”

If the bill passes, advisors couldn’t “under any circumstances be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned or transferred” by a school official for backing student decisions. They would be free to protect school-sponsored media as a form of student expression, not simply as an official representation of the institution.

“Students bring a unique, powerful perspective to journalism, and we must partner with them to protect that voice.”

The Pennsylvania School Press Association’s Journalism Teacher of the Year for 2016-2017, Hyatt is in her 13th year as The Spoke’s advisor following five years with student publications at Sun Valley High School in Delaware County and a career largely with TV Guide in Radnor. She notes that, when under administrative control, student newspapers become “awful newsletters.” She also worries about private schools and universities. The legislation, as proposed, doesn’t specify academic level or school type, citing only student journalists and institutions. “When are we going to trust young people?” she poses. “We try to teach them to be responsible, but then people are afraid to trust them. Students can fail—and when they do, they can learn to accept responsibility.”

Hyatt calls her administration “super-supportive” and says it hasn’t exercised prior review—but that’s likely an exception in the state. Through PSPA, she and former Malvern Prep student newspaper advisor Kate Plows conducted an online survey for New Voices that generated responses from over 200 students around the state. Over 50 percent admitted that their publications are subject to prior review, and more than 65 percent were unaware of existing protections in the state’s school code.

A decade ago, Spoke editor-in-chief Henry Rome broke the news that a district custodian was phoning in vacation days from prison following an armed robbery conviction. “The district was nervous about that one,” recalls Hyatt.

“Obligation to Report” took Story of the Year honors at the National Scholastic Press Association, and Rome won its Courage in Journalism Award. The story may have also helped change Pennsylvania law, which now requires educators to update criminal background checks every five years. “We at The Spoke think everyone should have that same right of free speech,” says senior Audrey Kim, The Spoke’s other editor-in-chief, who is also involved with the newspaper’s online version, which is completely independent and owned by students. “But I see why people would be concerned. A lot of people think kids will do something stupid.”

One of Kim’s latest ideas is to question the curriculum and how much flexibility teachers have, especially for Advanced Placement classes. And Guo is thinking about putting sex education on the front page—another first. “What’s cool is that New Voices is happening nationally,” she says. “We have the feeling that, even as students, we can change something. It sounds cheesy, but it’s a real feeling. We’re making a law, so it’s cool to think I can make a concrete difference.”