OUR VIEW: General Assembly can require schools to teach freedom, not censorship

Student journalists at Evanston Township High School in Illinois explored a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use. Instead of praise for covering state politics, their efforts earned heavy-handed administrative censorship.

School officials confiscated The Evanstonian student newspaper’s Sept. 22 edition and refused to allow the paper’s staff to distribute it, according to the Evanston Now local news website.

The controversy’s still swirling, but thanks to the Illinois Student Free Press Act, young scribes may be vindicated and the principal could be forced to apologize.

In July 2016, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill blocking censorship of high school student media and allowing administrators to intervene only to prevent the dissemination of content that is libelous, constitutes an invasion of privacy, violates federal law or incites students to break laws, district rules or disrupt school operations.

School officials rely on that last exemption, claiming the paper’s reporting glorified marijuana use and would entice students to try the drug. That’s a specious argument that attorney Maryam Judar of the Community Lawyer Citizen Advocacy Center shot down in remarks to the school board, which plans to review Evanston Township High’s handling of the matter.

Here in North Carolina, there is no state law shielding student journalists from censorship. Principals have broad discretion to react and overreact as they see fit, teaching the wrong lessons about free speech rights and responsibilities.

Last May, both Richmond Early College High School in Hamlet and Piedmont Community Charter School in Gastonia censored students’ yearbooks over controversial senior quotes.

The charter school blotted out two quotations — one poking fun at the school and another calling Gandhi a racist — in black marker before allowing the yearbook to be handed out.

The early college confiscated the entire print run of yearbooks over a handful of “inappropriate” senior quotes including student Miranda Taylor’s. It consisted of just three words: “Build that wall!” with attribution to President Donald Trump.

Richmond Early College learned a hard lesson about censorship by magnifying what it intended to suppress. Stories about the yearbook seizure landed not just in the Richmond County Daily Journal, News & Observer and Charlotte Observer, but the coverage spread nationally to the New York Daily News, New York Post, The Washington Times and Fox News.

It even jumped the pond with a prominent piece in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. A small North Carolina high school became an international laughingstock thanks to grabby administrators who acted far more irresponsibly than the students they sought to stifle.

If high schools want to teach the fundamentals of journalism, press freedom must be part and parcel of the lesson plan. Public schools, after all, are arms of the government, and government officials shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what can and cannot be published.

Five states — Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, North Dakota and Vermont — have passed New Voices legislation that prevents high school administrators from censoring student publications in most cases. Similar bills are being considered in an additional 16 states.

North Carolina is not yet among them, but extending press freedom protections to high school students is a natural step following the General Assembly’s passage of a college free speech law in July.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who admirably shepherded the campus free speech law through the Senate and House, would be well-suited to lead the charge. The state constitution gives the lieutenant governor a seat on the State Board of Education, and piloting more pivotal legislation could only help Forest’s likely campaign for governor in 2020.

Censoring student media to sidestep small controversies serves no valid educational purpose and often achieves the opposite result, making national mountains out of local molehills.

Today’s student journalists and high school newspaper and yearbook editors could be the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporters and national news anchors of tomorrow. Let’s teach them about the right to speak and publish freely, with all the corollary responsibilities that accompany that right.