WaPo: “When student journalists need defending, SPLC lawyers swoop in. For free.”

The following is an article published on The Washington Post on June 18, 2017. 

To view the article on their site, click here.

When student journalists need defending, these lawyers swoop in. For free.

By Margaret Sullivan

In recent months, millions of dollars in donations have rained down upon journalism organizations, prompted by President Trump’s verbal attacks on the news media and citizen support for the press’s role in America’s democracy.

That’s been great news for worthy recipients such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, ProPublica and others.

But one tiny outfit, working out of a windowless Washington office, has not benefited. That’s unfortunate since its constituency — vast numbers of high school and college journalists — is far bigger than the number of professional journalists.

“There are probably three times more journalists in America working for school credit than for a paycheck,” said Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and the executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center.

Thousands of times a year, student journalists in crisis call the SPLC’s hotline. They may have had a camera confiscated by police, or had their public-records requests denied, or be facing censorship or stonewalling.

“We’re like the public defenders for student journalists,” LoMonte told me. They respond to every request, and they never charge a fee.

The problems cut across ideology and political lines.

LoMonte helped a reporter at the student newspaper at New Jersey’s Kean University as she tried to pry loose a surveillance video that the university’s police department was wrongly withholding. Once the reporter had the video, she wrote an important story that brought to light a former student’s claim that he suffered excessive force and racial profiling in a 2013 arrest by campus cops.

At an Omaha high school, the student newspaper wanted to publish a column suggesting that teachers keep their politics out of the classroom. (It observed that some of them were trash-talking Trump, using words such as “Nazi” and “Hitler.”)

The school administration found the column unacceptable. Then, when students tried to write about the censorship, that article was killed, too. With SPLC’s intervention, both pieces were published — and won a state high school journalism award.

Students at Millard West High School in Omaha hold up their student newspaper, which won a state award after overcoming censorship of a column that criticized teachers for bringing their own politics into the classroom. (Millard West Yearbook Staff)

In Lafayette, La., a high school principal decided that a yearbook page on a student’s gender transition was “inappropriate.”

The student, Scotty Jordan, told me the yearbook page might never have been published without the center’s involvement.

“We really didn’t know what to do, so they helped us a lot,” Jordan said.

The group is meeting a critical need and doing it on a shoestring, said Andy Alexander, longtime Cox News Washington bureau chief and a former Washington Post ombudsman.

“Student journalists often lack the sophistication or the financial means to fight back against things like unlawful censorship or denial of access to public information,” said Alexander, who now advises the Committee to Protect Journalists.

On the high school level, censorship tends to be the biggest issue. For college journalists, it’s getting access to public records.

But LoMonte said, “There’s a grab bag.”

“I’ve gotten people out of jail, I’ve gotten cameras back from police — this is an urgent-level service,” said LoMonte, who will leave his post this summer, after nine years, to do journalism law work at the University of Florida.

Founded in 1974, the center works in a spartan rented office in northwest Washington. The four-member staff, which includes paid interns and law students, not only responds to crises, but also sends a network of more than 200 lawyer-volunteers from all corners of the country to do workshops for student journalists, intended to prevent problems before they arise.

Laws that help professional journalists do their jobs — including freedom of information and shield regulations — often apply to student journalists, too. But in school-censorship situations, LoMonte often begins with a practical, rather than legal, argument: That schools would be acting in their own self-interest to let students publish because, in the social-media era, they’ll find a way to get their message out in some other (perhaps less accurate) form, anyway.

Meanwhile, the center is successfully leading a grass-roots effort to get states to pass legislation giving student journalists protections for gathering and publishing news of public concern.

It all takes money, but the center’s budget of $650,000 “has been stuck there forever,” LoMonte said, with funds coming from foundations and individuals.

Student journalists, said LoMonte, are doing “really high-end, sophisticated, societally important work” on topics including drug addiction, sexual assault and free speech on campus.

And, as Nieman Reports wrote recently, college journalists are both benefiting from their extended online reach and struggling with university administrations who want to keep a lid on controversies that may hurt their reputation.

That means more legal challenges to come. For LoMonte, the solutions may not always be clear, but the mission certainly is.

“If you’re not defending student journalists,” he said, “you’re not defending journalists.”

For more by article author Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.

Leave a Reply