EDITORIAL: Independence of student press must be upheld, supported by community

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EDITORIAL: Independence of student press must be upheld, supported by community

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To say that the past year has been difficult for the press would be an understatement. In May of this year, Montana House Representative Greg Gianforte made headlines by body-slamming a reporter for “The Guardian” during a campaign rally. On Oct. 2, “Washington Post” reporter and United States resident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by Saudi Arabian agents. Even as recently as Oct. 29, President Donald Trump called the press “the True Enemy of the People [sic]” in a tweet. However, the degradation of the press is not limited to the marbled columns of the White House and the editorial columns of the “The New York Times.” It’s happening right in front of our eyes. Over the past couple of years, School Board candidates, school administrators and even advisers of Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) school newspapers have shown willingness to stifle the journalistic integrity of school publications for the sake of saving face and pursuing personal motives. While journalists need to be held account- able for presenting accurate information to their audience, school officials should work to support the institution of the independent student press.

School districts should recognize the value of an uncensored student press, as it is recognized as a part of state law. In 1988, the Supreme Court decided to significantly decrease the First Amendment rights of student journalists in the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case. However, a group of states, including California, passed a law expanding students’ freedom of expression instead, refusing to recognize the Hazelwood laws. California Education Code 48907 declares that students are entitled to the same press freedoms as professional organizations. The code specifically states that “pupils of the
public schools including charter schools, shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press including, but not limited to… the right of ex- pression in official publications… except that expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous.” Anti-Hazelwood laws in California grant student journalists many press freedoms unavailable to other student journalists across the country. As a result, PAUSD student publications have more opportunities to voice the opinions of the student body. Such opportunities should be celebrated and defended, not suppressed, by administrators.

Despite the fact that publications in PAUSD are protected by California laws, they still do not receive the respect and support from school officials and community members that they deserve. Actions like harassing student journalists, at- tempting to coerce students into publishing certain opinions and refusing to support school press freedoms do not align with the spirit of the fourth estate, also known as the media. For example, “Palo Alto Online” recently published a series of articles describing the harassment of a student on “The Campanile,” Palo Alto High School’s student newspaper, from a School Board candidate. By refusing to talk to or cooper- ate with publications, PAUSD School Board candidates and officials show that they are not interested in the opinions of their constituents. Taking student-run publications seriously is central to increasing students’ participation in important community decisions and winning the support and trust of students.

School officials should work to mend relations with reporters and publications in order to take full advantages of rights granted by the anti-Hazelwood laws. To many communities, school publications are a reliable source of school-related news. Therefore, school officials need to do more than just pay lip service to the press. It is especially important that administrative staff treat school publications like The Oracle with the same regard they would give a professional news organization. This uniformity is crucial, as it not only provides student journalists with valuable learn- ing experiences in journalistic ethics, but also helps them ensure that the most accurate information is being presented to their readers. Student journalists also have the responsibility of fostering cordial relationships with school officials. It is important for publications to have a thorough understanding of those involved in the PAUSD community—even if opinions may differ—due to a shared goal of improving the district. While the press is entitled to
print their opinions, they need to be held accountable for fact-checking their articles before printing and take ownership for any mistakes in their content. Additionally, printing the opinion of the staff should not include swaying the members of the paper to match the personal opinion of the teacher adviser. Without argument, advisers are a vital part of the publication process—they teach the journalistic style of writing, help edit articles, give guidelines for appropriate content and coordinate production. However, as a student-run publication, the opinions must come directly from the students, not the adviser. Ultimately, the content that is published is intended to be read primarily by students, and therefore, should be relatable for that demographic.

In today’s increasingly polarized political and social climate, the journalistic integrity of media organizations everywhere is being questioned. Authority figures and candidates today who seem more interested in avoiding controversy than serving the public continually attack and degrade the free press. While we recognize that student reporting is not always perfect, it still acts as an important conduit for student voice; now, more than ever, it is vital that school officials recognize that the First Amendment’s jurisdiction is not limited to those involved in professional publications. As the main student-run publication at Gunn, The Oracle staff stands with students and student journalists close to home
and across the country.

—Unsigned editorials represent the majority opinion of the staff (assenting: 33; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)