As the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Waipahu High School, Chavonnie Ramos felt strongly that several pertinent topics should be covered by the student publication.
The sorry state of bathrooms inside the school. The teasing and taunting of the school’s cheerleaders, whom she felt deserved equal respect as other athletes. The frequent fights on campus.
But she chose not to pursue any of these subjects because of messages she received from the school’s administrators to focus on “mostly positive stuff.”
“We were all nervous that if we wrote it, we would get in trouble with the vice principal,” Ramos said, of any story on ramshackle bathrooms. “We kind of played it safe there.”
A common refrain heard among many of Hawaii’s student journalists in public schools is that pursuing or publishing a story in the school newspaper that’s even remotely controversial may cause backlash for themselves, the paper or their advisor.
Even when school administrators have never voiced displeasure or issued a warning about printing something that might cast the school in a bad light, some students are wary of pursuing a story that could put the school community on edge.
For instance, when student editors at McKinley High School’s The Pinion learned that a substitute teacher was video-blogging and live-streaming his class for his personal YouTube channel — he was fired several months later — they chose not to cover the story for fear of what the principal might think.
“I think we were afraid the principal wouldn’t want a story that would damage the school’s reputation,” said 16-year-old Kelvin Ku, a junior, and the paper’s assistant editor. “I know it would be an interesting article but I’m just slightly hesitant to write about it.”
Student media advocates will get a chance this year to fight in the Legislature for greater First Amendment protections in the public schools.
House Bill 1529, modeled after similar bills enacted into law in 14 states through the “New Voices” movement, aims to protect student journalists from censorship by prohibiting prior restraint of material for school-sponsored media by school administrators. Exceptions include if the content is libelous, slanderous, obscene, amounts to an “unwarranted invasion of privacy” or incites students to violence or otherwise disrupts school operations. School officials must justify reasons for limiting student expression in media “without undue delay.”
The proposed legislation also prohibits the dismissal, discipline or other forms of retaliation against a student media advisor who’s protecting a student journalist engaged in protected conduct.
The bill, known as the “Hawaii Student Free Expression Act,” was introduced by Rep. Takashi Ohno, and backed by more than two dozen House members.
“I think this language will protect everyone involved — the student journalists, the advisors and the administrators,” said Cynthia Reves, The Pinion’s newspaper advisor for the past nine years at McKinley High.
“For students, it will provide greater First Amendment freedom than the current law involves, and for the advisor, it will take them out of the complicated middle ground they’re in.”
When it comes to school-sponsored publications, students don’t have unrestricted freedom. Per the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood ruling, school administrators can exercise prior restraint over student media if their reasons are “related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
The student free expression bills seen in many states seek to apply the more open standard to school-sponsored publications as set forth in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker, which applies to all other student speech.
Hawaii’s only policy governing school-sponsored student publications is Board of Education Policy 101-9. It states that while students have “the right of expression,” such a right “carries responsibilities.”
Students “are still in the process of learning the skills and processes of effective and responsible communication, and are considered to be still in need of guidance and supervision,” the policy, approved in 2015, states.
Part of the role of student publications, Board Policy 101-9 continues, is “enhancing the image of the school and school community.” The DOE also has its own section on this topic in its “Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.”
“There’s not a lot of rights, roles and responsibilities that are outlined. Because of how vague it is, (student journalists) are not sure how to proceed and that gives them pause,” said Jenny Howe, an English language arts teacher at Roosevelt High and the yearbook advisor.
Any law enacted in Hawaii would supersede the board’s or DOE’s policy. Some individual high schools here have their own policies for school-sponsored media, but they’re typically written by news-writing classes themselves.
Proponents say a student free speech bill for school-sponsored publications would instill confidence in students who are hesitant about writing about something controversial by clearly outlining their rights. That impulse is evident among many student journalists around the country, say experts.
“Honestly, instances of overt censorship are relatively rare but what is very common is that students feel pressured not to even pursue or even attempt a story,” said Frank LoMonte, former senior legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center and director of University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.
HB 1529 is the first attempt to get a student free press bill on the books in Hawaii in almost 30 years. A student free expression bill that passed through both chambers in 1989 was vetoed by then-Gov. John Waihee, who said at the time he thought the DOE’s own policy, adopted in 1974, was sufficient.
In addition to Hawaii, other New Voices bills have been introduced this year in Nebraska, New York, Missouri and Virginia so far, according to the Student Press Law Center.
Rep. Takashi Ohno
Rep. Takashi Ohno
These state laws don’t remove a school’s administration’s right to pre-screen or pre-approve student publications, according to LoMonte.
“All the law does is limit the reason for which an administrator could just change or remove a story,” he said. “If the law passed, then the administer can continue reviewing the paper but they have to limit the changes that fit within the law.”
“Material can’t be removed anymore for purely public relations image reasons. That’s the big change,” he added. “When students complain of being censored, it’s not that they’re libelous or invading someone’s privacy, it’s that the story is damaging the PR image of the school.”
That’s a scenario Ramos, now a UH Manoa journalism major who’s the editor in chief of Ka Leo, the campus student paper, frequently experienced in high school.
Her desire to write a story about teasing faced by Waipahu High School cheerleaders was shot down by administrators. They learned of her intention and warned her not to write anything that might negatively portray the school climate, she said.
So Ramos ended up shifting the focus of her story, writing a profile of the team’s two new cheerleading coaches instead. “I get that doing positive stories are nice, but I wanted to bring more details to it, where (it relays) this is the reality,” Ramos, 20, who graduated from Waipahu in 2016, said.
As for her newspaper advisor at the time — who has since left that role — his advice to his students usually was, if it was edgy, “Don’t write it,” Ramos said.
Additionally, before each issue of the school paper, “The Cane Tassel,” went to press, she said a school vice principal would review the issue, and not just for copy edits. He’d ask the staff to change wording wholesale, forcing them to push back their print deadline by taking as long as a week to provide feedback.
Civil Beat reached out to school administrators at both Waipahu High and McKinley High for comment but did not hear back.
The introduction of the bill is the culmination of a two-year effort that originated when Reves and Howe met several years ago at a journalism education conference on the mainland.
They created the Hawaii Scholastic Journalism Association, which meets monthly and has grown to include several other newspaper advisors for Hawaii public schools as well as student journalists.
This marks the second year Reves and Howe tried to get a bill before the Legislature.
Last year, they were told by the House education chair to start with the Hawaii DOE. So they approached the department in February, asking officials to revisit the policy and craft something stronger. They even submitted a proposed revision of Board Policy 101-9.
They didn’t hear back from the DOE until this past October.
“We received a response that in essence said, we think the language in the current policy is the right language,” Reves said.
Ohno, the bill’s sponsor this year, did not return a request for comment from Civil Beat.
Civil Beat reached out to the department for comment on the bill, but didn’t hear back.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has prioritized “student voice” during her leadership, making it one of three pillars of her “high impact” strategies since joining the DOE in 2017.
Writing about relevant topics is the only way more people might be interested in a student newspaper, Ramos said.
“I noticed more people are likely to pick up the paper if the subject is interesting or it relates to them,” Ramos said. “I’d rather read a story on something that’s going to impact me — rather than (elicit a reaction) of, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’”
The Pinion’s current editor in chief, Alexandria Buchanan, said she welcomes the language in the bill and is prepared to testify in support at the Legislature.
“I think it’s important for students to have that voice and be sure they won’t have it limited in any way,” Buchanan, a 16-year-old junior, said. “The bill would just solidify that.”
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