State Law Should Guarantee Freedoms for Student Journalists



By Lauren Sorensen, Editor in Chief

During first period on Jan. 29, a school aide came to the door of my humanities class and told me that I was needed in the office.

At first I did not think anything of it as I was waiting for a letter of recommendation to be dropped off for a scholarship application. Much to my surprise, though, I found myself in the principal’s office. I was told that I was not allowed to write about a particular topic for the school newspaper. Sadly, this was not the first time I was censored this year.

That is why I feel compelled to endorse new legislation proposed by a group called New Voices.

Free speech and free press are protections granted to every U.S. citizen by the Constitution. Recently, the national New Voices campaign has ignited a call to state legislatures to extend and protect these freedoms to high school journalists.

A 1988 Supreme Court ruling granted censorship powers to public school officials over district-sponsored publications. However, states reserve the ability to protect students’ free press rights if they choose under the ruling.

For example, a measure in North Dakota specifies that censorship of student journalism (district-sponsored or independent) can only be applied if pieces contain slander, invade privacy, violate state/federal law, violate school policy, or interfere with school operations.

Legislation of the same caliber is being called for in Wisconsin by the New Voices group. Nationally, support for such actions has spread across partisan lines. The freedoms of the press and speech have been nationally deemed as imperative rights to protect for all citizens, including student journalists.

As a student journalist in West Bend, I have experienced first-hand the type of censorship this legislation would guard against.

First I was told that I could not cover student concerns when a West social studies teacher was controversially placed on administrative leave a week before semester exams in January. Although my intention was simply to present student viewpoints, I was told that due to personnel issues, I could not cover the story.

Most recently, I was denied the opportunity to write about a possible overhaul to the English curriculum because at this point it is “not a student-interest piece.” When I asked the administrator how curriculum could be considered not a student issue, I was told that it is not at this point, and the committee making these decisions should be able to work through them without outside interference.

In other words, I was forbidden to report the facts related to issues that students, residents, and other local media were already extensively discussing.

“As a student journalist in West Bend, I have experienced first-hand the type of censorship this legislation would guard against.”
– Lauren Sorensen, Editor in Chief

A more grim interference, however, lies not within my rights as a journalist but within my desire and rights as a student to both learn and practice authentic journalism.

As a newspaper, the staff of The Current has decided to pursue serious acts of journalism rather than list bulletin board highlights. We are not here to cover the score of the basketball game or what is for lunch this week. As editor in chief, I have been told by administrators that maybe we should write about “good” stories. We do run “positive” stories, such as a recent article about the talent show and an upcoming article about random acts of kindness. Sometimes, though, what needs to be reported on are not heartwarming topics, but more serious and possibly controversial topics.

We are here to investigate stories that students want to know about or what students should become informed about. As I wrote earlier this year, we are not a publicity arm for the district. We are a body of independent thinking student journalists who wish to simply represent and cater to our community audience. True journalism brings stories forward that must be brought to light. Serious journalists engage in investigation, not cheerleading.

Beginning last year and reaching new heights this year, the writers of The Current have faced new hurdles from the office. Personally I have been muted regarding two topics, and other writers have faced interference, too. For example, the office has required some articles be read and authorized by administrators prior to publication.

This is an entirely new circumstance for The Current, which historically has been allowed to exist as an independent, responsible body of student reporting and a vehicle for teaching authentic journalism. According to adviser Eric Beltmann, there has been more administrative interference this year than in the previous 12 years of his advising tenure combined.

This year the office has repeatedly asked me, “Are students really interested in this?” or “Do students really talk about this?” I am always surprised, because those questions make apparent how much district officials are out of touch with student concerns and our readiness to think critically about serious matters.

Almost every Current meeting is filled with students expressing awareness and curiosity towards topics such as administrator turnover or changes to curriculum, and there is a void of serious motivation to report on trivial events. As a student in the hallways, in the cafeterias, and in classrooms, I hear fellow students speculate and voice their concerns.  As a student myself, I feel as though few of my questions or concerns are acknowledged.

I want to explore serious stories and apply the skills I have gained by being a student in this district. Unfortunately, my learning is too often hindered by the same officials who are, I believe, charged with nurturing my learning environment.

Based on my experiences this year, I feel as though protection must be extended to me and my fellow student journalists. I firmly believe that journalists have a responsibility to practice ethical journalism and present a story that can prompt independent interpretation and inform the public. These practices and the ability to carry them out is first gained at school, a place where all learning should be cultivated.

Unfortunately, true educational growth might require a legislative watch dog to protect student journalists from the kind of censorship I have faced this year.

I deem censorship a crucial learning barrier that must be torn down, and therefore urge all readers to support the New Voices proposal to protect student journalists in Wisconsin.

The Current welcomes submissions from all students, faculty, administration, and community members, but reserves the right to edit for length or content.  Any column, editorial, or letter to the editor expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the entire staff.

(Photograph courtesy of Yokes Photography.)


Filed under School News and Features, Viewpoint

24 responses to “State Law Should Guarantee Freedoms for Student Journalists

  1. Sally Heuer

    Very well written, Lauren. You have always chosen to report fact, not fiction, as you “do your homework” on the topics you report on. There was a reason that our forefathers believed in freedom of speech. It was for the very reasons you mentioned in your article. It is too bad that there are people out there who fear truth. You will make an excellent journalist…we have definitely prepared you for career success!

  2. Terry Brace Krueger

    This is not just expertly written, but it’s important. I’m so sorry that you have felt restricted from writing about topics you know are important and relevant to students here and the community as a whole. I hope your efforts to work for positive change stay with you always. This is a commendable piece of writing Lauren. Thank you.

  3. Mr. Zappia

    Just a wonderfully written piece Lauren. What a pleasure it was to read and unfortunately came as no surprise as to the administration censoring certain pieces. This is a student based newspaper and should be treated like one. Like we learned in class with embedded media, the higher ups like to shape the story for their benefit, but reporters like yourself are the true hero’s of democracy. Voices can only be silenced for so long. So proud to have you in class!

  4. Mr. DeLain

    Lauren: you Braveheart. Never stop questioning.

  5. Mr. Weddig

    Keep at it-I consider myself very lucky to have had you as a student, Lauren. Great article – your persistence will pay off.

  6. Ben Gamerdinger

    As a recent graduate, this does not surprise me in the least. I could see the beginnings of an administrative change in my time at East, and I don’t believe some policies support the best possible environment for student development. Administrators are leaders, and leaders should ask not what can they do to be successful, but rather what can they do to help their students be successful. These events have spanned from school time policies, to athletics, to class curriculum and assessment requirements, and more. The public school setting is, in my opinion, the most important setting in which to practice servant leadership, and unfortunately, a few recent isolated events have prevented that from occurring. The voices of the students and the community need to be heard. Finally, I would like to thank you, Lauren, for shedding light on subjects that need to be heard by students who don’t always have the opportunity to receive the whole story. Thank you.

  7. Brooke Petras

    It doesn’t surprise me in the least that there has been censorship from school administration. Thank you for shedding light on this topic and I hope students like myself get to see this article to know what truly is going on in the district. Definitely was worth the read.

  8. Linda Barrington

    I commend you for your articulate explanation of what happened. This is one more reason why Wisconsin needs the New Voices legislation to protect student journalists’ right to express themselves in their student publication.

  9. Sam Olson

    Great report Lauren! Couldn’t agree more!

  10. Sherry

    Lauren, you are so brave for writing this and sticking up for what you believe in no matter what others say. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Coach John Fritsch

    Lauren, well written and truly a shame that as a journalist you are held to restrictions by the administration. Keep up the good work and don’t stop pursuing the truth. Glad to have had you in one of my classes.
    Coach Fritsch

  12. Alias

    Unfortunately the franchise owners of New Voices, the Student Press Law Center, also wish to censor and silence student voices, and just take money from school districts that don’t conform to their speech.

    A better organization that truely works for free apeech and not our for duck ng schools dry is here:

  13. Dante Serrano

    I find it ironic that a school has its student learn about operative governments and how the people in those countries are denied their most simple of basic rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but yet the schools administration uses the teaching of the operative government to silence it’s own students. It would be nice if the administration could let its student voice their concerns in a respectful manner on topics that are truly a problem. It would also be nice if the school could allow the media to be free instead of the embedded media we have now.

    I have great respect for Lauren and the other reporters who do the hard work of attempting to show the truth to the public and hope they can get to reporting real uncensored news.

  14. Sue Skalicky

    Way to go! I applaud your courage. Keep it up. Let us know if any of us in North Dakota can help!

  15. Dawn Goralski

    WOW! Exceptionally talented writer and reporter. You have an extremely bright future ahead of you. Keep up the great work.

  16. A Very Upset Junior

    You’re very talented and you make excellent points. When the-teacher-who-I-will-not-name-in-case-you-are-punished-for-what-someone-else-wrote-in-the-comments-even-though-you-have-no-control-over-that was gone, there were a lot of rumors floating around. Had you been allowed to write about it, everyone would have known what was true and what was false. And I’ve heard about the terrible changes planned for the school curriculum, which makes my heart break over the sort of “education” hundreds of students might receive.
    The administrators expect us to respect their decisions, but how can we when they refuse to treat us as intelligent individuals who are far more affected by their decisions than they ever will be?

  17. Ms. Konstanz

    Lauren, this article is superb. Thank you for bringing attention to this proposal and using your talent to voice these very critical concerns.

  18. Dj

    Great article lauren! You bring up some great points. Way to stick up for what you believe in.

  19. Susan Kornemann H.

    It amazes me how the District and Administration ask of our students to plan for their future and career. To excel in their studies, encourage to reach higher and deeper into their studies. But then question and are surprised when students think, question or care how teachers are treated, how the students course selection content are determined or how they are formulated. Well done Lauren, your perseverance and integrity will always win over silence.

  20. CRC

    as a student who has been apart of the WBSD since kindergarten, i agree 100% with Lauren. the only reason the administration want to censor you is of course because of the way it makes them look to others. With all my years throughout this district i can tell of many true stories, that have happen that the public or people of West Bend have even heard of. Why? because the WBSD is very, VERY good at hiding things from parents and the public, they will do (and succeed) whatever it takes to stop from word getting out about some very controversial stuff from getting out to the community and public, so as it seems to everyone and everyone around us, we are a great school district and a superior one. but behind the walls of this district are rooms you’ve never explored before, let alone even knew about. The obvious reason for this comment is to share an actual students knowledge of what actually goes on at the school, and take it from me, there is a lot you don’t know, and even a lot i don’t know. like i said before and mean it totally, that this district is very good at hiding things when it comes to controversial info that happens in the school.

    • A sympathizer

      While this article is beautifully written, I have to say that I disagree with some of the points in it. I think it’s so easy to criticize and to attract readership using controversial articles that gain the public’s attention. But have some compassion; the administration is doing the best they can. They are certainly not perfect. West Bend has an image problem, and you are not fixing it by continually pointing out the flaws in the system. I am not saying that you should refrain from any criticism of the WBSD and become the advertisement of the district, but I also don’t think it’s the students’ positions to be constantly questioning and defaming the administrators.

  21. Pingback: The Highlander Online : New Voices of Wisconsin aims to protect student journalists’ rights

  22. A Fellow Student

    This is a great article that is extremely tactful in it’s message, and especially commendable for its respect for the administration. This is a prime example of how students are capable of making valid, fact supported, points. Simply because one has the title of administrator does not elevate them in logic and reason or position. Its plain knowledge that some “juveniles” are at a much higher caliber of morality, reason, and maturity that those given legal identification as an “adult” at 18 years of age. Lauren, you do an amazing job of proving that point. The administration might have a lot of issues that they are simply spread too thin over, but there is no excuse for letting core areas of the district suffer because of a student’s high achieving nature. If West Bend schools are going to hold students to a standard of excellence, they should be prepared and eager to let students continue on their given trajectory of success. Keep going Lauren, you have support as evident in the comments above. Thank you for your work.

  23. Pingback: KEMPA Journalism : Wisconsin should support student expression

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