Forum News Service

Suppose you want to wear a black armband as a form of protest against an unpopular war. But you are told by your high school principal that you will be suspended if you do so. That happened at a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, to a group of students who wanted to express their opposition to the Vietnam War. Despite the warning, the students went ahead with their protest and were suspended, as promised. They sued, and the dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in the students’ favor.

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“Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates,” the justices wrote in a decision called Tinker v. Des Moines. The 1969 decision remains a landmark case in protecting student press freedom. Minnesota has an opportunity to join a movement among states to explicitly grant those freedoms by adopting what’s called the New Voices Act. North Dakota is one of eight states that have passed a law, with lawmakers last year giving their support to ensure that student journalists have strong First Amendment rights.

It might be that legislators recalled a shameful chapter of West Fargo history in which journalism teacher Jeremy Murphy was removed as adviser of the high school newspaper - despite winning awards and accolade - because his students wrote about issues that displeased administrators. A few years later, after the superintendent left and cooler administrative heads prevailed, Murphy was reinstated as the newspaper’s adviser.

That case is typical, according to student free speech advocates. Administrators usually impose censorship on student journalists to avoid the school appearing in a bad light. The Tinker decision does allow a school to prevent or punish speech that threatens a “substantial disruption of school activities,” a legal standard that applies to many “non-curricular” forms of speech, including dress codes and hairstyles.

Appropriately, the bill proposed in Minnesota lists unprotected speech -student expression that is libelous or slanderous, imposes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates a law or, in a school official’s professional judgment, incites students to create a “clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises.” Advocates of the law point out that there are no published cases in which a school district was held responsible for the writings of students in school newspapers, magazines or yearbooks.

Student journalists will inevitably make mistakes. But they learn from their errors, and go on to become more engaged and better informed citizens and community leaders. Minnesota should follow North Dakota’s example and adopt the New Voices Act to make it absolutely clear that the First Amendment protects student journalists.