Fairfax, VA — I have stories to tell. Stories that are powerful, controversial and that deserve to be heard. Sometimes, I'm scared to tell those stories, and that's not okay.
The First Amendment guarantees several basic freedoms, including the freedom of press and speech. So, when school administrators censor and punish students for speaking out on issues important to them, they take away our freedom.
The opinion of the 1969 landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker vs. Des Moines, states that "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Nevertheless, a student at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, was recently suspended for posting photos and videos depicting the crowded school hallway after returning to the school for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak. The suspension occurred despite their district's policy stating that the consequences relating to telecommunications devices begin from "administrative conference to three days of in-school suspension."
The administration at this Georgia high school is silencing students who speak out and expose the school's violation of health and safety protocols. This infringement on these students' First Amendment rights poses concerns that other school districts may try to similarly censor students who speak out about these types of subjects. Free speech experts warn that as schools reopen, administrators will "seek to silence reporting (formal and informal) by students."
Though my school district and surrounding school districts in the D.C. metro area chose to have an all-virtual start to the school year, I am concerned that this year poses even more of a threat to student's First Amendment rights than previous years. With the pandemic and ongoing protests, students want to speak out on health safety issues, school reopenings and racial justice, potentially controversial and politicized issues that could face censorship.
This isn't something new to me, as I, too, have wrestled with the threat of censorship before. For the past three years, I've been on the staff of my school's news magazine and on the editorial board. I vividly recall how the night before I was set to publish an article, my staffer messaged me to tell me to stop editing. The article was about the unfair enforcement of our school's dress code policy, so I was intrigued. I remember asking her why, and her response was something that, quite frankly, changed my life. She was afraid of the potential consequences imposed by our school administrators.
After witnessing my staffer silence her own voice, I felt a sense of defeat. Our administration doesn't review our articles before publication, but that could change in a heartbeat. There is always some fear in our minds when reporting on something controversial because there is no policy in place to protect us.
My feelings and experience led me to become involved with New Voices, a movement across the United States, to restore the First Amendment protections of student journalists. For the past year, I've been fighting to get New Voices legislation passed across the nation and in my home state of Virginia.
Censorship hinders the growth of our generation. It silences voices with crucial information and burns the bridge between students and the community. Though the suspension of Hannah Watters, the student at North Paulding High School in Georgia, was reversed, it shouldn't have happened in the first place. It was a reminder that students across the nation, especially student journalists, are constantly subject to censorship.
Students have time and time again proven that they can report on complex issues with utmost maturity. Now, more than ever, we need students to feel free to share what's going on through their perspective. And I won't stop fighting until all of our voices are heard — without censorship.