Empowering Youth to Knock Down Walls

As an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, I have responded to just over 9,000 requests (and counting) from high school and college students, media advisers, and those working on their behalf. Both nationally and within the region, the bulk of these calls involve censorship of student media.
Youth media professionals know that censorship is damaging. They don’t always know their response to censorship can be damaging, too. Consider the following hypothetical:
Two students arrive at a fifteen-foot high brick wall that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction. They turn to each other and share ideas, their reactions varying with their experiences.
The first student, from an under-funded school in D.C., says, “We should turn back. I’ve seen walls like this everywhere I go, and there’s no getting around them. They stretch for miles until they join other walls, which join still other walls. We’re just wasting our time. I don’t even know if I want to go over the wall.”
The second student, from a suburban Midwestern school, replies, “Well, some walls join other walls, but some don’t. Besides, we can build a ladder. And sometimes things can knock walls down. We can just walk along the wall, and even if we don’t get to the other side, at least we’ll figure out whether this side of the wall is the inside or the outside.”
The first student looks back at the wall thoughtfully, just in time for both students to be scooped up by an adult, thrown into a catapult and launched over the wall, ending all conversation.
The temptation to resort to a catapult is the problem I intend to highlight. Professionals for youth media programs with a focus in social justice face two potential stumbling blocks that may not be immediately apparent. The first is that many projects presuppose the end content of the media before student producers can offer input. The second is that, at the first sign of outside censorship or other resistance to youth media products, adult producers assume control and defend the work. In either case, the feelings of marginalization and irrelevance inculcated in the school environment are perpetuated—and that in turn alienates students from the very right to speak that we purport to champion.
The Difference between High School and Prison: Taco Wednesday
The Student Press Law Center was founded in 1974 with the mission to help students and those working on their behalf with legal information and assistance. When necessary, we make referrals to local attorneys who offer pro bono legal representation. The impetus for the Center was a report by the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism titled Captive Voices.
“Censorship is the fundamental cause of the triviality, innocuousness and uniformity that characterize the high school press,” the report said [1]. For thirty-five years, the Student Press Law Center has sought to combat that triviality and uniformity by empowering students with an awareness of their rights and the power of their words, images, and projects.
The courts, including the Supreme Court, have consistently acknowledged that students are entitled to a degree of free expression rights even in a public school setting [2]. School administrators often believe that the opposite is true, and that a student sent to public school can have his or her speech controlled without limitation or constitutional obligation. Because of this, students get a mixed message: “the Constitution grants everyone the right to free expression, but you’re not part of everyone.” Youth who don’t feel protected by the Constitution have little reason to value it or protect it; similarly, youth who don’t feel their expression is worth protecting have no incentive to generate media filled with that expression.
This conditioning has a profound effect on students attempting to produce media. Many students simply accept censorship, having seen firsthand for years how school officials ignore Constitutional rights. Others, backed into a corner by suspension or expulsion, are utterly lost, not having any concept of what the Constitution might actually mean or how they might actually vindicate their rights. A small number of students—often those who have lawyers for parents—have a much more concrete idea of the wrongdoing they’ve suffered, and immediately want to seek legal redress.
Very few students realize they have the ability to oppose censorship without needing an adult to take the lead.
Be an Adviser, not a Vice Principal
Youth media professionals are people of conscience. Very few master criminals have a line in their plans for world domination that reads “start a student newspaper.” No one passionate enough to inspire the creation of student artwork could be foolish enough to believe that becoming a youth media professional is the path to great riches and fame.
Permitting that passion to overwhelm student decision-making, however, undermines the basic goals of social justice and youth media. If social justice includes civil rights, and civil rights includes the right to free expression, then students need to determine the content of that expression, whether their decision is a documentary video of an anti-war protest or a video feature on their favorite kind of sandwich. In plain language, social justice has to include the right to give the finger to social justice.
It also means letting students address censorship themselves. Too often, professionals try to defend student media when they should be teaching youth how and why to defend their own media. While it can be hard for professionals in youth media to stand back and watch the struggle, an assumption of control undermines the message that youth media can be powerful, even though the intent is only to help reach a quicker resolution.
Overall, youth media professionals working for social justice should start from the perspective that advocacy needs advocates, and the creation of a strong, independent youth voice is of much more value to social justice than a project with a laser-focus on the topic the adults happened to find interesting. This process begins, as it must, with educating students about their right to publish, the effect their work can have on others, and how the First Amendment was created specifically to defend this process against manipulation by the government.
Suggestions to the Field
There are a myriad of resources available to assist in having these conversations with young people facing censorship, and the subject matter is too diverse to cover in any depth here. But empowering students to create and defend their work begins with teaching them that they own their investment in their work. Practitioners should reinforce the following points at every opportunity:
1. Students own their words and images, literally. Copyright law permits them to sell their works, and they should treat their work with the same care (if any) they use to handle the iPods, canvases or computers that contain the works.
2. Within the bounds of the law, a student’s expression is in the student’s control. What they choose to do with that liberty will determine how people view them.
3. Media products are powerful and valuable. We ended up an independent country because (more or less) a few people decided to tell off King George. Right now someone somewhere is getting sued for stealing someone else’s work.
4. The purpose of the First Amendment was to protect speech someone tried to stop. Speech that no one is censoring doesn’t need any protection.
5. If someone is trying to censor a student’s work, that work is probably powerful and valuable, and it is what the First Amendment was designed to protect. And because of the First Amendment, student authors have a lot of ways to defend their rights, should they choose to do so.
From these basic lessons, students and professionals can forge an understanding that a professional’s role is to alert the student to options and help provide information necessary to make an educated choice, rather than being another adult seeking to impose by fiat a system of rules that deny autonomy and the value of the individual’s work.
Social justice seems abstract to many students because they haven’t experienced any, particularly at over-populated and under-funded schools in urban areas. The difference between a student who surrenders at a wall and one who scales the wall is the knowledge that a student has the right, the power, and the tools to make the climb.
Adam Goldstein is Attorney Advocate for the Student Press Law Center who is licensed to practice in New York. Beyond media law, his Internet work has included representing domain name complainants in arbitration and authoring several legal articles on online copyright and trademark issues. Before entering legal practice, Goldstein spent three years as a freelance producer and editor for FoxNews.com, handling day-to-day and breaking news coverage.
[1] Captive Voices, The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into High School Journalism 49 (J. Nelson ed. 1974).
[2] Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, 506 (1969) (finding students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”); see also Morse v. Frederick, 127 S. Ct. 2618 (2007) (citing Tinker as valid).