By today’s standards wearing black armbands to school may seem pretty tame, but in turbulent 1965, it was enough to trigger school suspensions and lead to a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court battle over First Amendment student rights.
My friend for years before, high school sophomore John Tinker, along with his sister Mary Beth and their friend Chris Eckhardt, chose to wear the armbands to silently protest America’s involvement in Vietnam and to support Senator Robert Kennedy’s drive for a holiday cease fire. Their schools suspended them, prevailed in several subsequent court decisions, but ultimately lost when the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just a few years later I landed a job teaching high school journalism, and could tell my students (who were bitterly accustomed to the stings and limitations of being minors) that in the worlds of journalism and expression, they enjoyed exactly the same First Amendment freedoms afforded adults and members of the professional journalism community. Sure, they had to be thorough and act responsibly (just like their professional counterparts), but if they did then they enjoyed First Amendment protection.
That was, until the Hazelwood case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court 20 years later, in 1988, and the nation’s students lost their First Amendment rights – in effect, returning to their pre-Tinker case status. Unless they were fortunate enough to live in a handful of states that quickly passed student freedom of expression laws, America’s scholastic journalists were again subject to prior review and censorship by school administrators. How sad. Now I had to teach about another American double standard, about the First Amendment rights enjoyed by all American citizens unless they happened to be students.
Many, many professionals, teachers and students have worked to return First Amendment rights to students. Organizations like the Student Press Law Center consistently have supported scholastic journalists. These organizations need and deserve our support. Many scholastic journalism organizations also recognize individuals and publications that have struggled with First Amendment Issues. They must maintain vigilance and continue to applaud those who lead the fight for student First Amendment rights. These armaments must not be dropped.
Student journalists must continue to be thorough and responsible in their work, and continue to raise the bar of excellence higher and higher, and prove by performance that they deserve the return of their First Amendment rights lost in the Hazelwood decision. State legislators need to be encouraged to draft laws similar to those of states that support scholastic journalist freedoms (at latest count, eight).
Above all, everyone needs to hear that, yes, this really is kind of a big deal!
Jim Ellenberger started a small broadcast club at Perry High School in Iowa in the early 2000s, and within a few years it became part of school’s curriculum. He served as treasurer of the STN Executive Council and remains on its Advisory Board. He has been an RTNDF Teacher Ambassador, Student Press Law Center Steering Committee member, Channel One Advisory Board member, and an Iowa High School Press Association officer. He also particpated and assisted in nine ASB Workshops (formerly "Camp STN").