On May 3, the eyes of the world will focus on Washington, D.C., for World Press Freedom Day -- a celebration designated by UNESCO in 1993 to draw public attention to the obstacles faced by journalists in gathering and distributing the vital information necessary for an informed public.
This is the first time World Press Freedom Day will have been commemorated on U.S. soil. Because it is America's first-ever World Press Freedom Day, it's the right time to take stock of the state of America's own press freedoms -- and where those freedoms fall short and are in need of improvement to realize the full promise of the First Amendment.
While U.S. law affords professional journalists some of the strongest protections against government interference anywhere in the world, the job of freeing America's presses will remain half-done so long as those freedoms fail to effectively protect journalists working on the campuses of schools and colleges.
As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, many schools and colleges believe that they can completely dictate the content of campus publications and punish any deviation from their orders. Since Hazelwood, America's students have been victimized by what one legal scholar called a "censorship tsunami," with the brunt often falling on the country's most respected and effective journalism teachers:
Such abuses of power by government officials have no place in a free society that values open dialogue about matters of public concern. Censorship undermines the valuable civic engagement benefits of working on a journalistic publication. It teaches young people the destructive lesson that government officials get to decide how and when they may be criticized.
Each World Press Freedom Day ends with a declaration of shared values and principles adopted by the participating delegates. It would be fitting for America to confront the shortcomings in the protection of the nation's most vulnerable journalists by supporting a firm statement of student rights as part of the Washington Declaration that will conclude World Press Freedom Day 2011.