I was told I couldn't publish my article in our school's newspaper because the principal thought it would be embarrassing. Can she do that?
Kudos to you for trying to expose a really important problem! School officials often try to censor student reporters to avoid embarrassment for the school and complaints by parents, but they can trample student’s First Amendment rights in the meantime. Whether the principal could censor your article or not depends on whether your school’s newspaper can be categorized as a limited-public forum (don’t worry, we defined it below). If your newspaper is a limited public forum, and your principal has never or rarely reviewed student articles before publication, then you may be able to claim your First Amendment rights were violated.
What’s a Limited-Public Forum?
When we say forum, websites like Reddit or Quora might come to mind. For our purposes, forum simply means a place where expressive activities can take place. When you express your opinions in a public place, the level of First Amendment protection you get depends on the type of forum you’re in.
- A public forum is a public space where the government allows expression from anyone. A plaza in front of city hall where people can stage a peaceful protest is a good example.
- A non-public forum is a public space where the government can shut down any form of expressive activity. Examples could be a military base, a prison, or an airport terminal.
- A limited-public forum is where expressive activity may take place, but the government can limit it if the government wants to. Examples could be a city park or city auditorium. A school newspaper might be a public forum, but we have to ask some questions first.
Questions to Ask
Whether your school newspaper is a limited-public forum depends on the level of sponsorship asserted by your school. Think of “sponsorship” as how much control the school has over the publication. If the school has a lot of control over how the publication is run, it is less likely to be a limited-public forum. Answering the following questions will help you start to figure out whether your school’s newspaper is a limited-public forum:
- Does the school pay for the newspaper, or do students raise money to pay for it?
- Is the newspaper part of a regular class where students receive grades, or is it an after-school activity?
- Does the school principal usually review the newspaper before it's published, or is there a hands-off approach?
If the school takes a hands-off approach to the publication, the newspaper is probably a limited public forum, which means students have stronger free speech protection for their articles. But, if the school takes an active role in its sponsorship, that freedom is more restricted. In your case, if it turns out the school is pretty involved with the newspaper and there is a high level of school sponsorship, it’s likely that the principal can censor your article, even if it’s exposing an important problem like the one you’ve described.
Click here for a full list of questions to help determine if your school is a limited public forum.
Suing a school for violating your First Amendment rights is a long and expensive process. It can take years to get a case through court! Instead, some students have gotten good results by bringing the issue to the school board and the press!
In the above video, California students wanted to write a piece about the unexpected firing of a popular teacher. The principal attempted to censor student reporters and eventually suspended their journalism teacher who stood up for the students and pushed for the article to be published. Students began showing up at school board meetings, airing their complaints, and demanding answers from board members. In the end, the principal relented and allowed the article to be published.
In New York, a principal censored an entire issue of the school's newspaper because it contained an article quoting a sophomore who said he lacked good teachers. The principal claimed he had a right to censor the article because it was "negative and disparaging." In response, the students launched a petition to "bring back our journalistic freedom" and got at least 500 signatures. The story gained attention by First Amendment watchdogs like the Student Press Law Center and Society of Professional Journalists. In fact, the New York Post ended up publishing the article on its own website!
Student reporters at a Kansas high school used investigative reporting to uncover a big problem within their school - a newly hired principal who didn't have the credentials to take on the job. The result? The story gained so much attention that the incoming principal resigned from her position. Note that the students in Kansas didn’t face censorship from their school administration. This is because of Kansas’s state-specific First Amendment protections that give students more free speech protection than students in most other states. Because of these extra protections, the students were able to shed light on a serious problem that otherwise could have faced backlash from school administrators. The story got national attention, and people are realizing more than ever the importance of protecting student speech and adopting student press laws like those in Kansas. Thanks to student reporters exercising their free speech rights and publicizing wrongful censorship, there is a nationwide push to increase student press protections.
This shows the power and importance of news reporting. Instead of jumping into a lawsuit with your school when it tries to improperly censor, consider sending out a press release!
Check out the Student Press Law Center's sample press release for students who want to contest school censorship.
Have questions about free speech rights?
Send your questions our way, and we'll have our team find you an answer. Keep in mind, we’re not actually your lawyers and aren’t representing you. We can definitely help clear some things up and give you some info, but if you need actual legal help for your situation, you should find a lawyer in your area. And don't worry, any information we collect is only for our own research, and we won’t share it or sell it to anyone.