Thirty-two years ago this month, students at Hazelwood East High School outside of St. Louis would go from average teenagers to national celebrities as their school became the subject of a Supreme Court case. The case, formally known as Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, questioned conceptions of censorship and free press as it evaluated Hazelwood East’s request for student journalists to remove articles on subjects including teen pregnancy and divorce from an issue of the school newspaper. In a defeat for student journalists, the court sided with Hazelwood East, arguing that public schools maintain the right to censor student press as long as its reasoning demonstrates “legitimate pedagogical concern.”
Invoking the anniversary of the Hazelwood decision, Jan. 29 marks the celebration of Student Press Freedom Day, a day of action put forth by the Student Press Law Center to highlight the ever-necessary role of uncensored student press, both historically and in today’s unpredictable political climate. The Student joins the many newsrooms across the country in reaffirming the need for an independent student press to report on issues relevant to the communities which we serve — untainted by the often competing needs of the institutions with which we are simultaneously affiliated.
For some, articles produced by The Student provokes unsavory and uncomfortable conversations that may otherwise go incognito. Last semester saw impassioned debates on affordable housing in the Town of Amherst after an article revealed plans for a single-room occupancy unit across the street from Pratt Field. In the semester prior, The Student was the first and only to report on the drawing of a swastika at an off-campus party; it launched an investigative series on college admissions in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal; and then the paper offered extensive coverage of the Common Language Document controversy — all in the same issue. The growing buzz these articles incite often requires our news writers to continue on the beat, reporting on the community’s reactions and responses from administration. And the Amherst community goes to great lengths to engage with these articles without much prodding from us editors, submitting op-ed responses to previous articles and weighing in on breaking news. These conversations are sometimes difficult — and even painful — to participate in. But in the everlasting words of the great artist Lizzo, the truth hurts, and it means there’s something more exciting.
And now, the stakes are even higher. By the time Student Press Freedom Day rolls around a year from now, we’ll have gone through a series of Democratic primary elections, an impeachment trial and a national election that will dictate who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years. It’s clichéd because it’s true: the upcoming presidential election is perhaps the most important one to date, and for many (even most) of us, it will also be our first as voters. It’s an election that comes hot on the heels of the previous that put media and journalists under fire like never before. The very concept of truth itself has been challenged.
Though the debates facilitated between the pages of The Student seem a far leap from those occurring on national, televised stages, it’s all part of the same process. Engaging in democratic discussion begins on the most local level. Research has shown that when people see and understand how political issues affect them directly, they are more inclined to take action. It’s why stories about the affordable housing development at 132 Northampton St., the environmental and human rights harms of Cargill — whose CEO is a college trustee — and the challenges of work authorization for international students all matter so much. They remind us how the ins and outs of life in Amherst play out in agreement with key issues that find themselves in presidential platforms. With a college campus that functions as its own microcosm, the student paper is often the only place to illuminate where we see these challenges at home.
Moreover, as a student paper, we also have a degree of responsibility to teach as we inform. For most of us, The Student’s reporting remains relevant for the four or five years we’re on campus, and soon, what’s printed in the pages of The New York Times, The Boston Globe or The Chicago Tribune will become our local news. In the nurturing spirit of a college, we have the unique role of being able to help young people, our peers, adapt to a shifting media landscape, one where opinion often passes off as fact, and facts are easily slandered as partisan biases. It can make your head explode trying to piece together what is real and what you yourself believe.
This is why we are launching our media literacy campaign for the year 2020 and announcing it here for the first time. We are going to dedicate the year not just to bringing you straightforward, factual reporting on the community in which we live, but also to shedding more light onto how we do that. We hope that by seeing what goes into crafting a news story, an opinion piece, a features article or an act of investigative journalism, we all can have a better sense of what the information each one carries means for our lives, the issues we care about and how we act upon them.
So join us, as we team up with groups across campus in this mission; read along as we showcase the work that goes into building different sections; listen to the speakers we bring in; and sit in on the workshops we host. And, as always, keep reading student journalism.