When the medium determines the freedom old-fashioned censorship is often the result





Part of our mission at the Student Press Law Center is to relay the stories of student journalists and advisers who are frustrated by censorship.

Over the last two decades, those situations have become familiar. Students learn that good journalism means covering important but sometimes unpleasant or controversial issues that affect their world. School officials, more concerned with their image and community reaction, try to silence that coverage. Students and advisers object and assert their rights. Sometimes their efforts are successful and the censorship is overcome. Other times the censors win and the quality of the students’ work inevitably suffers as a result.

As described in this issue of the Report, that censorship saga has moved to a new front: student television journalism. Student newspapers, yearbooks and magazines are joined by student-produced television programs at many schools. What began as student-read announcements over the intercom has expanded to full-fledged television journalism: news programs with student anchors and reporters who are learning the particular skills of that medium.

It is no surprise that school officials are attempting to silence television news as they have the print media. But what is confounding is how many school officials seem to believe that greater censorship may be justified simply because it is “television.” It is a debate not so different from the one now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court over the government’s ability to regulate the Internet: should different media be subject to different forms of regulation, simply because they are different? The real question is, will we tolerate censorship of the electronic media to an extent that would never be allowed for the print media?

The censors present countless justifications for giving electronic media second class status: it’s more “immediate;” those who view it may be seen as “captive” to it; the audience may include young and impressionable children.

But the television censorship incidents reported to the SPLC suggest that most school officials have a much baser motivation. They fear the public exposure that results from student electronic journalism. A student television program that allows guests to express controversial viewpoints may be viewed by thousands of community members.

In fact, in many cases, school officials have made clear students would be allowed to include the exact same information in their print publications that is expressly forbidden for electronic dissemination.

One is left to wonder if in fact all the attention focused on the “difference” in the medium might not simply be an excuse to camouflage the same motivations for censorship that have always existed.

Student television journalists deserve as much freedom to cover the news and express their views as their print counterparts. Time will tell if they get it.


reports, Spring 1997