Editorial: It is time for the DOE to free all student newspapers from the threat of censorship

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Two weeks ago, The Classic’s editors-in-chief were credited on the front page of The New York Post for helping remove a teacher at Townsend Harris High School who a city investigative agency concluded “threatens the wellbeing” of students.

In other schools, principals can stop student journalists from taking on such stories. However, that does not happen at THHS, which has a Free Press charter ensuring that the school administration will place “no subject off limits” and will not read and pre-approve articles before publication.

It is essential for every New York City high school newspaper to be protected by a similar charter that guarantees a free student press. By prohibiting censorship, the DOE can ensure student newspapers have the right to expose serious issues and ensure safer school environments for current students and future generations.

Many other student journalists in NYC schools unfortunately still work under the threat of censorship.

In 2018, Batoul Saleh, a student at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, documented her plight to publish articles freely within her school. She was told that all editorial decisions had to be approved by their newspaper club advisor or principal to reflect the school’s interests. In a City Limits article, Batoul wrote, “My classmates and I did not join a PR club, we joined a newspaper.” 

A 1988 Supreme Court decision created a highly subjective standard for responding to student expression that school administrations have used to censor student journalists, and though 14 states have passed legislation to clarify that standard and protect students’ First Amendment rights, New York is not yet one of them.

For the past three years, The Classic has supported efforts to pass state legislation to ensure that all New York students have the same press freedoms that we do at Townsend Harris. We support Teens for Press Freedom, the Student Press Law Center, New Voices in New York, and other student journalists who have been tirelessly advocating for New York’s Student Journalist Free Speech Act.

Nonetheless, we do not believe the DOE needs to wait for a change in state law to provide schools with the kind of charter that The Classic has.

A charter does not grant students total freedom to publish whatever, whenever. Consider the process that The Classic employed when it learned that a teacher had been returned to teach at the school after having allegations of sexual misconduct against him “substantiated” by an investigative agency. 

On November 7, The Classic received an anonymous email containing an investigative report on the teacher. Rather than publishing a piece straight away, the editors-in-chief decided to spend two days deliberating and consulting with their advisor, who helped put them in touch with experts and legal professionals. The advice from the professionals was clear: before you publish, make sure the report is authentic since it came from an anonymous source. Ryan Eng, Julia Maciejak, and Jasmine Palma then began sending out questions to do just that. 

The charter ensures that students cannot be forbidden from pursuing a subject; it does not mean they are on their own. We receive guidance and mentorship from an advisor, regularly seek advice from professionals, and follow the SPJ Code of Ethics as well as The Classic’s own set of Standards and Practices. Ryan, Julia, and Jasmine took in multiple sources of advice and then took careful steps to verify and authenticate sensitive information. They made the call on how to proceed, developing valuable leadership skills and confronting significant ethical questions along the way. 

Other students deserve the right to the same process. In a world where students take to social media to publish rumors and gossip, having a school newspaper program that teaches the importance of verifying facts and taking careful steps before publication is an essential educational opportunity that must be available to all. 

It’s even more important when you consider the issue of safety.

The DOE cannot guarantee that it has removed all educators with credible allegations of misconduct against them from being in contact with students across the city. We’d like to believe that what happened at THHS was an isolated incident, but we know from previous cases at our school that it is not. Students shouldn’t have to protect themselves by making use of a free and open press, but what’s clear from our school’s history, along with what’s occurring in other schools such as Babylon High School, is that we do have to protect ourselves. 

Depriving students of this right to question and report is a matter of safety. 

We call on the Department of Education to free all student journalists in New York City from the threat of censorship. Every student deserves the right to protect themselves as Townsend Harris students have.

Photo by Janna Habibulla