Constitution Day resources

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ConstitutionHappy Constitution Day! On Sept. 17, 1787, the original framers of the Constitution met
and added their signatures to the document they spent that summer writing, arguing and hashing out. Of course, just a few years later (1791), the document would include 10 amendments, the first of which is certainly near and dear to every scholastic journalism adviser and reporter. Since that time, the document has been amended 17 more times.

This day–celebrated on Sept. 18 this year because the original day fell on a weekend–provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the importance of a document that provides the basic structure for how our government operates today and one that has inspired people all over the world to work toward democracy.

Below are a list of resources that can help:

The Constitution Center

The Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Committee

The Bill of Rights Institute

The PBS NewsHour

The National Education Association

And all of this is not a minute too soon. A report released last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed a somewhat bleak picture of the country’s understanding of basic constitutional principles. This included 37 percent of Americans failing to name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment.

On a brighter note, this is the perfect reminder of the important work of teaching journalism and its role as a hands-on training course for better citizenship. And that’s a great Monday morning “pick-me-up.”


Teach the First Amendment, now more than ever

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Then candidate and now president-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the press and the First Amendment has raised more than a few eyebrows among defenders of free speech during the past year. Everything from threatening to sue publications that printed unfavorable coverage of his behavior or candidacy to insisting he would change libel laws to enable him and others to more easily win lawsuits against the press have all been fair game.

The news business has long been a target of those in governing authority because the press wields the power to question and hold accountable all those individuals and institutions that everyday citizens place faith in to structure and shape their lives. However, it’s precisely that power to question authority that must be staunchly defended.

But his misgivings about the First Amendment don’t stop with the press. Earlier this month in a tweet, he hinted it was unfair for people to protest the outcome of the election. He reversed course on that statement several hours later with another tweet (as noted in the link above). And just this week, he announced in a tweet that flag burning should be illegal and punishable with jail time or possibly the loss of one’s citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled more than 25 years ago that the practice is protected speech.

The freedom to write, speak, worship, assemble and petition can’t be taken lightly because those freedoms—etched in the hallmarks and identity of American democracy—can be eroded and quashed without vigilant defense. A government official’s own feelings, preferences or even ignorance can never supplant the law.

Perhaps some of these claims from the president-elect are more rhetoric than anything else. But it’s troubling when a powerful government official demonstrates such lacking knowledge of the laws and legal principles that protect the opinions of all Americans, especially those expressing dissent.

Press freedom advocates are calling on journalists to exercise more tenacity covering the new administration, and their calls deserve merit. It’s only through concerted, deliberate effort we can defend these liberties. But it can’t end with journalists. All citizens must make the effort to call out baseless claims that represent affronts to basic freedoms. And to do that, they need to understand the law, perhaps not enough to become legal scholars, but they need a working knowledge that enables them to call out falsehoods and overreaches of power.

To all scholastic publication advisers, now is the time to double-down on teaching students about a free press and other free-speech issues. Young people now, more than ever, need to understand the First Amendment’s protections, principles and limitations. That way they can wade through the clog of information and claims that circulate through the news cycle, blogs and social media and can help teach others about the importance of understanding and defending their freedoms.

Teaching about the First Amendment in class is the foundation. Ensure that students learn about court cases like Near v. Minnesota, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Texas v. Johnson, New York Times v. U.S.New York Times v. Sullivan & Snyder v. Phelps. In few other places will students ever be exposed to this material. These seminal cases and others will provide a firm foundation to guide their continued learning and exploration. Help them apply the holdings in those cases to contemporary issues and stories in the news.

Guide students to stay abreast of what’s happening and to understand how the First Amendment and its protections are discussed and interpreted in the news and among conversations online.

And, of course, the best way to teach about freedom is through practice. No better “real-life” simulation of a free press in action exists than a student publication, whether print, broadcast or online. Teach students to do good journalism by asking questions of those in power and seeking accountability. That mindset will serve them well into their adult lives.

Below is a list of links to recent news items and columns that will enable better discussion.

A Call to Action for Journalists Covering President Trump by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Our First Amendment Test Is Here. We Can’t Afford to Flunk It, by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom: Why It Matters, by Mirren Gidda & Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek

War Between Trump, Media Seen Escalating With Presidency’s Power, by Gerry Smith, Bloomberg News

Presidential endorsement provides important press freedom lesson

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When it comes to student free expression, some people just don’t get it. And some probably never will.

Take the recent uproar over the student newspaper The Bear Truth at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument, Colo., south of Denver. Last week, the content of an editorial led to outraged parents and citizens attacking student editors and the adviser both online and through phone calls to district administration. Some demanded that the adviser be fired and the student editors be suspended from school.

The problem? The paper printed an endorsement of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in an area that leans heavily Republican. According to coverage in The Gazette in Colorado Springs, the crowd’s outrage included claims that the school was improperly indoctrinating students with propaganda, that the adviser provided undue influence in the formation of the students’ opinions, and that such an editorial violated a district policy that forbade disseminating political material to students.

The student editors said the attacks they received on social media got even more heated and even less constructive. As The Denver Post wrote in an editorial defending the students’ right to publish, much of the uproar was misplaced.

However, all doesn’t seem lost here. Of the 60 comments posted on the story on the paper’s website, most seemed positive and affirming of student press rights. Some who disagreed with the paper’s stance still lauded the students for the courage and foresight they exercised in reaching their conclusions.

What follows is a response to some of the misguided comments and assertions from the crowd, especially claims about improper journalistic practice and violations of school policy and the law.

Editorials don’t speak for everyone. While an editorial does represent the official view of the publication’s editorial board, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of every member of the publication’s staff. Likewise, an editorial certainly doesn’t represent the views of all readers. This is true of student publications and professional media alike. A student paper’s editorial no more represents or “speaks for” all of the students in the school than does a community newspaper’s editorial speak for all of the citizens in that community. Nor does an editorial tell readers that there is only one acceptable way to think. Individuals must take stock of all the information available to form their own conclusions. That is true for students and adults alike.

Student readers had every right to disagree with the paper’s stance, even to the point of crumpling up the publication without reading further, as the article in The Gazette noted.

Editorials are not news stories. The point of an editorial is to pick a side and to justify why the paper thinks that side represents the best way forward. It’s no different when endorsing a candidate or weighing in on the appropriateness of a new grading policy. Despite some parents’ claims about a lack of balance and fairness, it was not journalistically necessary to give an opposing candidate equal space in this instance.

The point of the opinion section is to provide the community with ideas for discussion and debate. The paper’s editorial, representing one voice amid many, was simply offering its take about who it felt was the best candidate. Those who disagreed or were upset had every right and expectation to express their disfavor. That’s why publications encourage letters to the editor, online comments and interaction through social media.

Anger knows no boundaries. As the Post editorial also noted, such “outrage” isn’t restricted to one political camp. No doubt an endorsement of Republican nominee Donald Trump most likely would have fueled similar outrage in areas that lean more liberal. And that’s part of the crux of the problem here. The very people who were most angered over this endorsement most likely wouldn’t have been so concerned about indoctrination of “impressionable young people” if the paper had endorsed another candidate. People can find all sorts of creative reasoning as to why some speech shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment when it disagrees with or questions their own personal beliefs or interpretations of events. For free speech to have any value, those protections must be ardently defended for all, no matter the opinions expressed.

It should be noted, of course, that those expressing their concerns were simply exercising their First Amendment rights as well, however misguided and misinformed their opinions were. But it’s intelligent, informed and reasoned opinions that are better able to inform public debate and discussion.

The law is on the students’ side. Colorado is one of a handful of ever-growing states that offer their student publications additional protections beyond those afforded by the federal Constitution. The law is quite clear that students have the right to express their opinions on political matters and to write stories about such issues, even if they spark vehement discussion, outrage or discomfort. While policies may forbid school staff members from distributing campaign literature and other political material to students, coverage in the student publication doesn’t violate such a policy. And a big hats off here to the school administration for remembering the law and working to educate angry parents and community members.

It’s true student publications use school time and resources to publish their work. But that doesn’t entitle the community at-large the power to exercise editorial control over content simply because some disagree with what’s published or how it’s covered. Community members would have no more right to decide which groups can express opinions in a public space, like on a public sidewalk, simply because their tax money supports its upkeep.

These reactions are nothing new. Misunderstandings about the legality of content in student publications manifest themselves over and over again. The important thing to remember is that the students took a stand for something they believed was the right thing to do, no matter whether one agrees with their opinion. They took an unpopular viewpoint they knew might spark anger from some, but they pushed ahead anyway. They exercised their First Amendment right to speak and publish. During an election that will arguably shape the future for these young readers, The Bear Truth editorial board sought to help students form their own opinions, not to force them to line up behind their conclusions without question.

And in this entire process, perhaps a few more people will learn something about the law and the importance of press freedom. And perhaps, then, this whole uproar won’t be for naught.

Workshop explores social justice journalism

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Recently, the 12th annual Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop explored the topic of social justice in journalism and reporting. The previous workshops featured lively discussion and debate from journalists, experts, researchers and others connected to the respective topic under consideration. This year was no exception.

Panels included discussions about the Flint (Mich.) water crisis, the shootings both at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and of five police officers in Dallas, immigration, and safe spaces on college campuses. The workshop website includes several lesson plans geared toward high school teachers and scholastic media advisers.

I’ve also provided a few discussion questions that correspond to each video for advisers and teachers to use in class. Each session can be accessed in the archives link on the workshop’s website. The archives also include recordings of previous workshops.

Why this is Important?

What is social justice journalism? How do students define it? Why is it important?
How have economic/business interests affected journalistic decision-making for or against social justice reporting?

The Internet has enabled the average person to publish without gatekeepers. How has this affected the ability to bring More

“Tinker Tour” stops at Kent State

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For more than 300 students, their history book came alive Tuesday morning when they met Mary Beth Tinker, one of the plaintiffs in the 1969 case Tinker vs. Des Moines, which affirmed the free expression rights of high school students.

The event was part of the “Tinker Tour,” a 19-state RV trip this fall in which Tinker and Mike Hiestand, special projects attorney with the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), are promoting the importance of student free speech and press rights.

The tour, a project of the SPLC, includes stops at high schools, colleges, scholastic press association workshops and other special events. The pair visited Kent State as part of the Ohio Scholastic Media Association’s fall regional workshop held at the university.

Tinker’s message rang clear with the audience: Use your rights to create positive changes in the world. She recounted stories of how students and other young people were always on the forefront of social change, especially when she was growing up in the 1960s. Their voices changed the world back then; the young people of today can do the same.

Seeing others’ passion, especially that of her parents, for promoting peace during the Vietnam and civil rights era inspired her to wear the now-famous black armband to school even though that action violated school policy. She and several others who participated were suspended from school, and their families took the case to court. The Supreme Court eventually accepted the case.

The holding, now quoted in countless law reviews, textbooks and subsequent court decisions, affirms that public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The outcome of the case has reverberated throughout the scholastic journalism world for more than 40 years—it upheld students’ rights to speak and publish, as long as their actions weren’t materially disruptive to the school environment. In response to a student question, Tinker said the greatest gift the case provided her was the ability to interact with young people to teach them about their rights.

It was amazing to see the students’ excitement to meet and talk with Tinker following her presentation. She definitely received “rock-star” treatment. One student even thanked her for her contribution to the cause of student free speech. Tinker’s passion was obvious, and so was that of the student attendees. It was refreshing to see young people so excited about promoting the First Amendment and free speech. As those involved with journalism education well know, action negates apathy. Seeing that level of enthusiasm was an encouraging sign, indeed.

What you don’t know can hurt you

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Despite the high volume of groans the topic often receives from students, teaching law and ethics is an essential component of any successful scholastic journalism operation.

During my own work with students during the past decade, I’ve always stressed the importance of understanding the basics of the law and the foundations of ethical decision-making skills. The goal isn’t to turn students into “mini attorneys” or “budding philosophers.” Rather, instruction primes them to recognize potential “red flags” and pitfalls throughout the reporting process. It’s about preventing problems before they make their way into print.

This emphasis on law and ethics stems from the class’s study of First Amendment principles. Coupled with one’s right to speak, publish, worship, petition and assemble is a body of rights guaranteed to all others in society affected by your expression. Thus, the right to speak doesn’t provide the speaker with the right to falsely defame or invade another’s privacy while doing so. As I always explain it, responsibility accompanies your rights. Learning about this balance is important for several reasons:

What you publish does affect other people. Words can build people up or tear them down. Words possess the power to instill a vast array of emotions upon listeners or readers. The words you publish about others can leave a lasting impact, either positive or negative. Students must recognize that their carelessness (even if it results from ignorance or shortsightedness) can cause others needless pain or embarrassment.

Students can get into trouble. Anyone who assumes the role of a publisher is legally responsible for whatever he/she chooses to publish. Students are no exception. They can be sued for libel, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, etc. Saying “I’m only 15” isn’t a documentable excuse.

Problems arise when you least expect them. Some advisers incorrectly assume that if their students avoid covering any “controversial” or touchy subjects, they’ll simultaneously avoid any potential legal or ethical pitfalls. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any story could contain legal or ethical problems. The conundrums arise when you least expect them. Being prepared and teaching students to make wise choices are the best defenses.

The Internet has complicated this picture. Information spreads ever so quickly online. Gathering information from the World Wide Web can be easy and convenient, especially when the information adds valuable context to the story. However, rumor, innuendo and half-truths travel just as quickly. Teaching students to sort through this maze is essential to the process.

But teaching law and ethics might seem daunting. In this series of upcoming posts during the next few weeks, I’ll discuss key points about legal and ethical issues as well as offer resources to demystify this most important of issues every scholastic journalism adviser must address.