In 1974, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson, who covered the Watergate scandal and the Civil Rights movement, interviewed students and teachers around the country and wrote a book about the state of high school journalism. The book, Captive Voices, found that censorship in schools was pervasive and identified the need for an organization that would stand up for students' First Amendment rights.
From this, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial — which commissioned the book — partnered with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to create the Student Press Law Center. SPLC spent the next few years establishing an advisory committee of journalism educators, developing an attorney referral network, raising money and helping students facing censorship across the country.
In 1977, SPLC worked its way onto the national radar during Gambino v. Fairfax County School Board, defending a student whose high school censored an article about students having unprotected sex. From there, phone calls started pouring in. In August of 1979, the Center became an independent non-profit corporation. By 1985, the SPLC was getting nearly 500 calls a year and had heard from students in 48 states.
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school journalists have less First Amendment protection than independent publications, making it easier for schools to censor student media. The SPLC is continuously working to counter the effects of Hazelwood by rallying opposition through the “Cure Hazelwood” campaign, launched in 2012 and a “New Voices” grassroots movement started in 2015 to protect student press rights at the state level.
As of August 2018, the SPLC has been contacted by nearly students and their advisers. It continues to staff a legal hotline, provide educational material, cultivate an Attorney Referral Network to provide free services across the country, file amicus briefs and fight against legislation that could threaten the freedom provided to all through the First Amendment.