The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This freedom of speech and of the press was always available to citizens, but not always available to students.
Student Press Freedom Day celebrates the day that students earned the right to freedom of speech with the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case.
Tinker v. Des Moines was a 1969 Supreme Court case contesting over three students who were suspended for their peaceful protest of the Vietnam War during school hours. The student newspaper had published an article about the plans students had to wear black armbands as a form of silent protest.
The school retaliated by creating a policy banning the armbands, but three students came to school wearing them anyway. The three were suspended until they agreed to return without the armbands.
With the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, a national nonprofit organization founded in the 1920s, the three took the conflict to the courts.
The case made it to the Supreme Court, where the judges decided that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In practical terms, this means that unless school officials can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that student speech will result in a substantial disruption of normal school activities or an invasion of the rights of others, student speech cannot be punished or stopped.
Student Press Freedom Day was organized by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in order to bring attention to similar cases across America and to celebrate the progress made so far.
Every year, the day has a theme created by the SPLC. This year’s theme is Unmute Yourself.
“Over the last two years, we frequently start talking on a Zoom call or the like, not remembering our mic is off, and another person has to gently remind us,” said SPLC member Candace Bowen. “Some students have the same reaction after facing censorship and criticism – they forget they have a voice.”
Student press is extremely important during the pandemic because student journalists are at the front lines of the issue. They can directly see the effects of the COVID-19 measures schools are putting out, and they can also make a difference if conditions are unsafe.
At the Kernel, student journalists are able to speak without censorship, shown in articles like “Former UK employee suspected of illegally entering dorm rooms faces multiple charges” by Allie Walters, and “Safety on campus: Is UK doing enough?” by Sophia Shoemaker. Both articles could have been censored, as they could be seen as potentially causing substantial disruption to UK through causing students to lose trust in UK, possibly even leaving because of that.
The Kernel is able to publish articles openly questioning UK because of the financial and editorial freedom it has, but that is not an option in many schools across America.
For those student newspapers who cannot speak as freely as the Kernel does, the SPLC has helped publish resources to defend their rights.
The SPLC also provides training and legal assistance to student journalists and the educators who work with them.