World Press Freedom Day 2011

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:

  • In Colorado, where -- until an outpouring of publicity and threats of legal action reversed the school's decision -- a 14-year veteran adviser was removed and a student newspaper discontinued because its staff truthfully reported the story of a student athlete who died after a wrestling meet.

  • In North Dakota, where the adviser of an award-winning newspaper that had just produced the state's "Student Journalist of the Year" winner was stripped of his duties because of complaints from the school district that the students' news coverage was overly aggressive.

  • In Illinois, where students were forced against their will to sign their names to, and hand-distribute, an administration-sanitized newspaper that school officials repeatedly denied having censored.

Read our letterSuch 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.

FOR TEACHERS: Use our World Press Freedom Day lesson plan and teacher notes.

How you can help:

  • Start, or join, a campaign to add your state to the list of eight states with statutes, and two with regulations, that offer protection to the student media beyond the bare minimum required by the Constitution.

  • Let the U.S. Secretary of Education and your state education agency know about the censorship crisis afflicting America's schools and colleges, and the inadequate training that school administrators are receiving in respect for student rights.

  • Get informed about the existing legal protections for student speech rights that often are misunderstood or misstated.

  • Report censorship as soon as it occurs, so that violations of student rights do not go unchallenged and remain invisible to the general public.