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

Free speech in the news

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Last week, the annual celebration of Free Speech Week drew attention to the importance of free expression. All journalism educators know that free speech and press form the foundation for all journalism and public communication, and fostering appreciation for those freedoms lasts for more than one week each year.

So in that vein, I offer a few examples of stories in the news in which free speech was a central issue or question. Current events and other recent examples can show students how legal principles apply to events in everyday life. Each of these stories raises important questions about free speech, its application to real-life circumstances, and its limitations. Following each scenario are a few questions for class discussion.

Presidential politics and libel law. Earlier this month, Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president, threatened to sue The New York Times for libel after the paper printed allegations from women who claimed Trump touched them inappropriately or made unwanted advances toward them.

Trump’s lawyer sent a letter to the paper claiming the allegations were libelous and that publishing them was simply an attempt to tarnish the candidate’s reputation and his chances of winning the election. The paper’s legal counsel responded with a letter to the Trump campaign, and The Times’ editorial board wrote an editorial defending the story.

As the editorial board noted, the law provides that the actions of public officials and public figures (those who hold sway in some governing function or those whose actions draw attention to themselves) are subject to more rigorous scrutiny, discussion and debate than the lives of private individuals. The landmark 1964 case (of which The Times was a party) New York Times v. Sullivan, spelled this out when it held that the actions of those in power must be subject to the greatest possible scrutiny in order for democracy to thrive.

This isn’t the first claim the candidate has made about libel laws. Earlier this year, Trump said he planned to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to sue the people and organizations he feels have defamed him. Of course, the president has little power to change libel laws, which are passed at the state level. Beyond that, the president must respect the bounds of the First Amendment, which can’t be changed at will on a personal whim.

The bottom line here is that anyone running for what’s arguably one of the most powerful offices in the world qualifies as a public figure, if not a public official. Their actions must be subject to the most stringent public scrutiny. This is equally why discussion about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for reading and storing classified emails can be subject to the same level of inquiry and debate. Knowing the law is essential for interpreting and understanding the claims candidates make during election season and beyond.

  1. Why is it important for the public to be able to discuss the actions of public officials, even those individuals who are running for office?
  2. Even if elected officials are powerless to change laws regarding free speech, why is it important for journalists and the public to vigorously defend the protections of free speech and press and to scrutinize the claims they make about free speech and press?
  3. Are most members of the public educated about the free speech laws? Why is personal education important to helping average citizens evaluate claims by candidates and other elected officials?

A protest and a journalist’s right to tell the story. Amy Goodman, co-host of Democracy Now!, was arrested last month while covering protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline expansion in North Dakota. The expansion has been mired in controversy. Proponents say the pipeline will make it easier to ship crude oil to refineries, while opponents are upset that the pipeline will disturb sites Native American tribes consider sacred, and they argue it could pose health risks to those on a nearby Native American reservation. The pipeline has sparked ongoing protests the past few months.

Goodman was arrested while capturing footage of company guards using dogs and pepper spray on protestors. Law enforcement claimed Goodman—even though she was working as a journalist—was a protestor and even participated in a riot. The charges were later dropped, but the local prosecutor initially responded to the claim of Goodman working as a journalist by questioning how was it possible to even determine who was a journalist because anyone with access to a cell phone and an Internet connection could publish information.

Without the stories journalists tell, the ability to understand what’s happening beyond one’s own direct experiences would cease to be. While the system is far from perfect, the right of the press to tell stories that hold the powerful accountable to the people is firmly etched in our national dialogue because of the essential function journalists perform. Covering a major protest, such as the one surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, is certainly protected speech.

Journalists’ rights of access to newsworthy people and events aren’t any greater than those afforded to the general public. They aren’t permitted to run red lights, trespass on private property or do anything a member of the public wouldn’t be afforded the right to do when covering a story. However, the conduct of their jobs shouldn’t qualify as criminal activity. Goodman’s reporting provided a public service by drawing attention to a matter of national concern.

  1. Who does qualify as a journalist? Should the same free press protections be afforded to those capturing footage on a cell-phone camera versus a reporter working for a national television network? If the former isn’t afforded the same rights, could that erode those protections for everyone?
  2. Journalists sometimes witness illegal activity (trespassing, rioting, etc.). What public service does their presence provide when they document both the activity itself and law enforcement’s response to it?
  3. While no one is above the law, could the threat of arrest deter some journalists from doing their jobs? What effect could that have on the public’s knowledge of important issues?

Online speech, civility, and the limits of free expression. This summer, comedian Leslie Jones—star of the latest Ghostbusters movie and cast member on Saturday Night Live—was subject to a barrage of racist and sexist tweets.

The mastermind behind this campaign was Milo Yiannopoulos, a blogger for the right-leaning site Twitter has since banned him from the site. Yiannopoulos was angry to be banned from Twitter and said Twitter’s action was an affront to free speech.

First, as a private entity, Twitter is legally permitted to ban users who don’t conform to the site’s terms of use. The prohibitions against censorship only apply to the government, not private individuals or companies. That’s perhaps one of the most misunderstood principles of First Amendment law.

Second, in another often misunderstood pillar of free-expression law, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Despite its lack of much, if any, contribution to the public agenda and the marketplace of ideas, to punish hate speech could easily pave the way to more censorship because deciding where to draw the line can become blurry. The best defense is a good offense, as they say. To counter the claims of those spewing hate speech, use speech that seeks to debunk it. In other words, instead of asking the government to punish or stop hateful-filled rhetoric, engage in speech that promotes unity, empathy and inclusion. Point out the fallacies that hateful speech contains. Stage a counter protest, for example. Or create an information campaign to promote a different viewpoint.

But, this case raises the point about the balance of fostering open discussion online while protecting individuals from an onslaught of hateful comments, attacks and bullying. The basic facts behind this story could play out in any school district in America where some students choose to bully fellow students from the shield of a computer screen. The serious consequences of which cannot be discounted. Putting the legality of the issue aside, it’s important to remember that with rights come responsibilities. And while the government cannot dictate that individuals be civil online, privately owned sites and apps can insist on a certain level of decorum on their sites.

In this article that thoughtfully spells out the important concerns raised in this debate, Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at the Newseum, cited comments that Newseum CEO Jeffery Herbst made during a speech earlier this year about the importance of staking boundaries of acceptable comments, especially when users take advantage of anonymity online to attack individuals. Seeking to establish such boundaries, as difficult and fleeting as they might be, is an important step to finding the balance between expression and civility. Others point to the need for consistent standards and policies to decide how users can be banned from such platforms, even though the government can’t mandate such even-handedness.

  1. A private entity like Twitter has the right to ban users from its site. It’s not a government organization, so no legal free-speech concerns exist with such action. However, does such action curb the amount of available voices, even if they are offensive to most? Do personal attacks have any merit at all? Does it make a difference if the intended target is a public official (like the president) versus a private person?
  2. What rights should individuals have to be free from (often anonymous) attacks online? How should site and app operators consider the rights of such individuals when crafting their user policies and spelling out terms of acceptable use?
  3. Should sites and apps ban anonymous comments? Does anonymity foster vileness and mean-spiritedness? What benefits can anonymous comments have?

As these stories clearly illustrate, free speech is constantly in the news. While each of these examples might have been a “snapshot in time,” the underlying questions they pose for the future of free speech are timeless. As technology changes, the same questions re-invent themselves, so to speak, and the same underlying matters appear time and again. Shedding a spotlight on how free speech manifests itself in everyday events is the start of enabling students to better understand how to protect, foster and defend their rights to speak and write.

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

Sunshine Week presents opportunity to teach in-depth reporting

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It’s Sunshine Week again. No, it has nothing to do with the weather or an early arrival of spring. (After all, here in Northeast Ohio, temps are still struggling to get out the 40s most days.) But it has everything to do with a functioning democracy.

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press coordinate this annual event to raise awareness about government transparency and the importance of an informed public. Sunshine Week is built around laws (commonly called “sunshine laws”) that mandate openness in day-to-day government operations. As the theory goes, corruption and malfeasance thrive in the darkness and shadows. The sunlight dispels the darkness so openness, honesty and fair play have a better chance of taking hold.

In practical terms, deliberations, debates and votes of most government entities occur in public. The records of many government institutions are available for public inspection and scrutiny. Any member of the public can find out how much the city spent on road repairs after a harsh winter, the salary of most government workers or the county sheriff’s latest arrest records.

Sunshine Week is perfect opportunity for everyone to understand better how their government at all levels (federal, state and local) operates and how transparent government serves the needs of the people. It’s also a time to understand which records are public and which are redacted or restricted and why.

Public records are open to all citizens, not just journalists. But stories garnered from the data in these records can be powerful. Student journalists, especially those at public institutions, need to take advantage of the data these records house. Below is a list of story ideas I use as part of a presentation about using public records in the student press. Exploring topics like these can deepen the audience’s understanding of how the school and other public institutions affect their daily life.

How often are your textbooks replaced? How much do they cost?

Is your school making cuts to programs to save money? Which ones? Who decides?

Did your school’s buses pass their most recent inspection?

Has the school cafeteria received health code violations recently?

How has your school fared on standardized tests?

What kinds of technology do your classrooms have? How often is it updated?

Is the roof leaking? When was the most recent building inspection? What types of repairs are being done? What will they cost?

How many fights have occurred at your school? How many arrests have occurred on school grounds? What were the charges? (Laws vary, but some of this information—especially the names of those involved in school disciplinary action—is private. However, the aggregate data about the number of incidents is often public.)

A note of caution: Public records laws vary by state, so learn more about your state’s laws and the process of making a request. It’s important to do research about which agencies hold the records you’re seeking. Many of the records for the stories above might be maintained by the school district, but some might fall to other government agencies like law enforcement or the local health department. Finally, this is merely a list to get you thinking. Tackling any of these stories takes time, resources and a well-developed sense of newsworthiness. Data and records by themselves tell you nothing. Each of these ideas requires in-depth reporting and interviewing to create a meaningful story that serves readers by helping them see connections.

The Student Press Law Center has complied numerous resources for student journalists to help them in their quest for public records and information. The Sunshine Week website also includes additional resources and lesson plans.

“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.