Indiana should pick students over censorship

IHSPA Executive Director Ryan Gunterman

The following testimony was given during the Indiana House Education Committee hearing Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018.

Good afternoon. My name is Ryan Gunterman, and I am the executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, a 95-year-old scholastic journalism organization at Franklin College. I am here to advocate for HB 1016 on behalf of our statewide membership because in my short time leading IHSPA, I have already worked with several schools where student journalists and advisers have faced outright censorship and reprimand for legally covering topics that directly affect their audience.

These are situations with which I am personally familiar because I too was the subject of prior restraint a mere four months into my 15-year teaching career when my student was told he could not write an article about the basketball team. Therefore, at the age of 23, I had to decide between the First Amendment and keeping my first job out of college. I picked paying my bills. My principal at the time, someone I like and respect to this day, had to make a similar choice. He had to pick the First Amendment or what he believed would be bad PR that could put his job and position within the community in jeopardy.

Too many times this is the decision facing our schools: the First Amendment or punishment for exercising the most-fundamental of American rights. This is not a situation in which anyone within a government institution should be placed. As a father of two daughters, one 6 and the other two months, the idea of having to pick between protecting my students and protecting my children is one that invokes quite the emotional reaction. Yet, I know for a fact that Indiana teachers and administrators are placed in this scenario more often than we care to admit.

Today’s student journalists must make a similar choice: their freedoms or the betterment of their community. Recently, I sent an email to 121 Indiana student media advisers asking them to pose the following question to their students: “If you could write about anything you wanted without fear of censorship, punishment, or judgment, what would it be?” I received numerous responses statewide, and here are just a few of the topics Hoosier students do not feel comfortable addressing due to a climate of suppression:

  • Bullying of students with special needs
  • Persecution of Christians, keeping a Christian mindset as a teen
  • Eating disorders
  • Mental illness
  • Lead in school water
  • Signs of abuse and how to report it to school officials
  • Suicide prevention
  • Equality
  • Hazing

These responses came from schools with varying levels of First Amendment protections for their student journalists, therefore, making three things quite clear:

1.) There are life-altering, and even life-threatening, topics that are being ignored out of fear of reprisal.

2.) Our students want to address what truly matters and are not interested in covering topics simply for their shock value.

3.) Even in schools where journalists are supported, students are self-censoring due to fear of punishment either to themselves or their adviser.

Passage of HB 1016 makes it clear that Indiana does not stand for this. It makes it clear that we do not want our teachers and administrators having to pick between the first 45 words of the U.S. Constitution and our students. It makes it clear that we want our students to be a part of the solution to those problems that deter from their educational environment. It makes it clear that we want our schools to encourage, and produce, an active citizenry.

It makes it clear that Hoosiers don’t just value the First Amendment, we practice it.

Ryan Gunterman is the executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and a former student media adviser and journalism teacher of 15 years. Any questions regarding this testimony and HB 1016 may be sent to pgunterman@franklincollege.edu.

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