By Jonathan Sperling
Nearly two years after a Flushing school principal censored a student newspaper that attempted to publish an article critiquing teacher performance, a bill to protect student journalists’ First Amendment rights is making its way through the New York state legislature.
The Student Journalist Free Speech Act would protect student speech at high schools and middle schools statewide, unless such speech is libelous, an invasion of privacy, violate school policies or incites violence.
This is a free speech and free press issue that honors the fact that as long as journalists are practicing truthful journalism under an adviser that students should be able to write newsworthy items,” Mike Simons, a yearbook adviser at Corning-Painted Post High School and a major advocate of the bill, told the Eagle. “In New York we have newspapers, yearbooks and student broadcast programs that wish to report on issues that administrators might deem controversial.”
Simons noted that the bill was partially inspired by an incident at Flushing High School in 2017, where the Flushing Advocate — a new student-run newspaper — attempted to publish an article titled “What Makes A Good Teacher?”
The article, written by Advocate staff writer Paloma Mendez, featured an unidentified sophomore student who stated, “School is stressful enough. Good teachers help you struggle less and help you get motivated, but to be honest, Flushing High School lacks in those kinds of teachers. Out of my 8 classes, only 3 of my teachers really care.”
Then-principal Tyee Chin blocked the publication of the article on the grounds that it shined a negative light on the school, according to Simons, who noted that the Flushing High School incident was a “perfect example” of principals who “are more often concerned with the public relations image of the school than allowing kids to practice sound journalism.”
Chin was eventually removed from his position as principal later that year, although it’s not clear if his departure was due to the Advocate incident or an unrelated reason. In a 2016-2017 School Quality Snapshot published by the city’s Department of Education, Flushing High School ranked “fair” in the student environment and the effective school leadership categories.
Though some might see the censorship at Flushing High School as an anomaly in the student journalism world, Simons noted that the incident was “an iceberg.”
You hear one story but there’s 10 that don’t come out,” said Simons. “Kids internalize this censorship to the point that the say ‘Mr. Jones would never let us print that so let’s not even try.’ They impart on this path of self censorship which knocks the creativity out of them.”
Simons expects the bill to make it on the state legislature’s agenda by spring. Assemblymembers Catherine Nolan and Nily Rozic are among the Queens officials who are co-sponsors of the bill.