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Opinions

The End of an Era

The year was 1988, the color dial was permanently set to neon, hair was known for being “the bigger, the better,” and the “Breakfast Club” was today’s “Mean Girls.” We remember the 80s as a time of hilarious exercise videos and Michael Jackson’s hit song “Thriller,” yet for students, 1988 turned out to be a monumentally bad year.

After two students at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis wrote two controversial pieces on teenage pregnancy and divorce, the school’s principal removed them from the newspaper. The students sued the school, and the case traveled through the circuit, until the case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier was finally taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declared that student journalists could legally be censored by school administrators and that they didn’t have the same freedoms as professional journalists.

Hold on a sec. What about the rights laid out in the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech and freedom of the press to all? The Court claimed that since the school’s paper was sponsored by the school, the school had a right to decide what was published for the student body and the public.

For years following the ruling, if a student journalist reported on a topic that didn’t follow the “values” of the administration, the article could be removed or censored in order to align with the principal’s viewpoint on the issue. Principals and board members could refuse to publish an article even if the article was unbiased and appropriate. You can therefore imagine what happened if the students presented a view that was critical of the school or school district.

Without freedom of speech, America would look eerily similar to George Orwell’s 1984-a world we all read about in English during sophomore year. People wouldn’t be able to protest things they don’t believe in, and authority would have blatant control over everyone; no one would have the chance to advocate for what they think is best.

Over this past summer, however, the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act was enacted in Illinois after being formally signed by Governor Bruce Rauner at the end of July. This act, introduced by the Illinois Journalism Education Association, gives students the right to choose the content of the student newspaper without fear of censorship. It quickly passed through the legislature with bipartisan support.

Why should you care? You’re not a student journalist; you think that this article doesn’t affect you at all; yet the passing of this act affects you more than you think. It’s extraordinary because student newspapers, as well as their Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts, are meant to inform the student body, and if administrators are limiting what newspapers can say in order to carry out their own personal agendas, then newspapers aren’t allowed to inform their audience properly, thus leaving you uninformed, misguided, or worse.

Whether it is a student publication or the New York Times, freedom of the press is not a right that should be taken lightly. Our rights and privileges make us the democracy that we are and allow us to question ourselves and others. They allow us to keep authority in check, consider controversial ideas, advocate for students and permit this country’s citizens to have a voice to promote change. Without these freedoms, who knows? Maybe one morning we’ll be waking up in Room 101.

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Westerner: The Maine West student voice for more than 50 years