Tennessee needs to get rid of prior review

Kylie Moore, Yearbook Editor

In 2005, Oak Ridge High School principal Becky Ervin took all 1,800 copies of the student newspaper before they could be handed out to students. According to the Student Press Law Center, she was not happy about several articles in the newspaper, including one about body art and piercings.

So far, this has been the most extreme example in Tennessee of a major problem across many states: prior review and prior restraint.

According to the Journalism Education Association, prior review is when anyone not on a publication’s staff requires that they be allowed to read, view or approve student material before publication. Prior restraint is when a school principal, a member of the school board, or a superintendent of school changes or removes content.

Prior review needs to be banned from Tennessee. Students cannot become well-informed and educated citizens without their First Amendment rights. Many states have already passed laws protecting student journalists, but Tennessee is not one of them.

Schools and colleges all around the country have student newspapers. They provide students with a chance to express themselves, to explore problems and suggest solutions. These newspapers are an important part of any student’s First Amendment rights.

Often, students will call attention to problems that adults ignore or never even noticed. One example is a group of high school journalists who investigated a new principal’s credentials and found that she had lied on her resume. Days later, she resigned from her job as principal of Pittsburg High School in Kansas. If prior review had been enforced, no one would ever have known that the principal was not qualified.

When President Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine resigned, a student newspaper beat everyone to the story. The jury is quite literally still out on the president’s dealings with Ukraine, but clearly, students can and should be able to explore big, important stories.

There’s even an interesting case from Sevier. Several years ago, the “Scribe” called attention to the fact that many bathroom stall locks were broken. Thanks to the article, the KCS maintenance department became aware of this problem and installed new looks.

When principals use prior review, students lose the opportunity to develop skills they need, including the ability to recognize real journalism and fake news. Students should not have to choose the content of their newspapers to make their principal happy.

According to the Journalism Education Association, students who are in charge of their own publication have to consider their audience’s right to know and people’s right to privacy. They have to judge sources and learn to be fair and accurate. When they make mistakes, they have to admit to them and deal with the consequences. They learn important lessons about responsibility.

There is a campaign called “New Voices” that is trying to get state laws passed that protect student journalists from prior review and prior restraint. There are “New Voices” laws in 14 states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

It is time that Tennessee passes a “New Voices” law. Students at Sevier Middle are lucky that they have the freedom to explore problems and offer solutions in their newspaper. Other schools are not as lucky.

Schools cannot teach students how to be responsible and express themselves without letting them use their First Amendment rights. Prior review and prior restraint are ridiculous.

Prior review and restraint need to be banned from Tennessee. There is no evidence that prior review from principals improves learning in any way. It is time for Tennessee’s state government to protect the voices of their students.

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