SPLC working to promote, engage and inform

Journalists are excellent storytellers, creative thinkers, and proficient organizers of facts. Plus, they’re almost always the most interesting person at the party.

What they aren’t very good at is self-promotion. Think about the last advertisement you got for your own hometown newspaper. Chances are, what was advertised was (a) we have coupons, (b) you can save money by subscribing for more weeks, and (c) did we mention the coupons?

What’s almost never mentioned is the news – and that reading it makes you a smarter, better-rounded person. Journalists usually are excellent storytellers, except when the story is their own.

Because those in scholastic journalism aren’t instinctive self-promoters, they need advocates. That’s where the services of the Student Press Law Center can be uniquely valuable.

In recent months, the SPLC has helped turn the tide with timely intervention on several occasions when policymakers failed to consider the impact of their decisions on the way students gather and report news.

In West Virginia, a reporter’s privilege bill very nearly made it all the way through the 2011 legislative session without anyone taking note that it left unpaid student journalists unprotected. That meant a salaried professional journalist could confidently promise confidentiality to a source, knowing that a court could not compel disclosure of a journalist’s privileged information, but a college journalist working on the very same story could not.

The SPLC did take note, and launched a campaign of op-ed articles and editorials that resulted in a Senate floor amendment extending West Virginia’s reporter shield to anyone gathering news while enrolled in an accredited educational institution. What could have been one of the nation’s worst shield laws for students became, overnight, probably the nation’s best.

In Virginia, the State Board of Education was poised to enact a set of highly restrictive rules curtailing out-of-school communications between teachers and students. Had the rules been enacted as proposed, teachers could have faced discipline for sending even innocent and business-related messages to students via texting, Twit­ter or Facebook.

The SPLC persuaded the Board to delay the vote to entertain more input, sounded the alarm among teacher groups, and generated a deluge of comments that convinced the Board its original proposal was overbroad. A much-improved version that removes the messaging prohibition passed in March.

In fulfillment of its advocacy mission, the SPLC made sure that the first-ever commemoration of World Press Freedom Day held on United States soil did not over­look the shortcomings of America’s own press freedoms for those who are learning the First Amendment in theory but are denied its benefits in practice.

The SPLC assembled a coalition of 39 journalism and free-speech groups who signed a joint letter urging President Obama to speak out against abuses of journal­ists’ rights on U.S. campuses just as his administration has done abroad. The letter appeared as a half-page ad in the April 15, 2011 Washington Post, and it’s archived at www.splc.org/wpfd.

It is the SPLC’s commitment to stay engaged in the arena of public policy on behalf of those in scholastic journalism with busy lives and demanding ca­reers who cannot always be. Because you may be bashful about telling the world how miraculous and how vital your work is, but we most certainly are not.

Frank LoMonte, executive director

reports, Spring 2011