The Spectator Editorial Board Advocates for Student Journalism Act

Members of The Spectator’s Editorial Board went to Albany to advocate for the Student Journalist Free Speech Act.

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By Duncan Park

Members of The Spectator’s Editorial Board—seniors Anisha Singhal, Peter Goswami, Christina Pan, and Zifei Zhao; juniors Ivy Huang and Sarah Diaz; and sophomores Christopher Louie, Duncan Park, Lenny Metlitsky, and Khush Wadhwa—traveled to Albany to advocate for the Student Journalist Free Speech Act on February 28. The event was organized by New Voices New York (NVNY), an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of public high school journalists in New York, and members of many New York public high school newspapers attended.

At the moment, journalistic censorship destroys a publication’s freedom of press because censorship limits what a publication can cover. Typically, schools censor articles that shine a bad light on the school or restrict opinions that the school does not agree with. High school publications have fewer free speech rights than an average high schooler because of the limitations that schools are allowed to place on them under present laws. This allows schools to enforce policies that discourage reporting on critical matters such as policy changes, disagreements, and protests––a problem that this legislation aims to address.

If passed, this act would provide public high school newspapers with increased freedom in publishing articles and would prohibit schools from unnecessarily censoring controversial articles, though some restrictions would still remain on what can and cannot be published, such as libel and slanderous content. The bill has already been implemented in 16 other states, including New York’s neighboring states Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont. Despite the bill’s bipartisan nature, the Student Journalism Free Speech Act remains stuck in the New York State Assembly’s education committee. Advocacy Day’s goal was to shift the balance toward a vote on the floor.

The trip took weeks of preparation, with the project being led by Michael Simons, Katina Paron, and Hillary Davis, who are part of the NVNY administration and were the main organizers. Advocates were given a briefing and an informative preparation kit, with handouts to track who they met with and other documents containing information about the bill. They also had a space for discussion and planning. “The New Voices group organized the trip to Albany and Senator Brian Kavanagh had a room for us to congregate in,” former Opinions Editor Singhal said in an e-mail interview. Participants then went to both scheduled and spontaneous meetings throughout the day with the goal of gaining co-sponsors for the legislation.

While The Spectator generally does not experience censorship, members of The Spectator traveled in order to protect publications who might not have the same freedom of speech. “I went on this trip to advocate for student journalists who don’t have the right to free speech in their student newspapers,” Singhal said. “Students often don’t have a strong voice in their own education, and student journalism is a crucial platform for us to have our voices heard.”

Likewise, many students at other schools, such as Beacon High School, Curtis High School, and Rochester’s Brighton High School attended despite lacking personal experiences with censorship. “I want [free journalism] to be extended to other schools who are more censored than The Beacon Beat’s [journalism]. This new bill has [more] goods than bads when it comes to improving the school,” Beacon High School senior Roselyn Veras said.

However, lobbyists faced many challenges prior to Advocacy Day. On the night before the trip, nearly two-thirds of the students canceled their plans to attend, leaving about 50 left. This required organizers to regroup students, causing some to feel unprepared. While it was a scramble, the group found their footing throughout the day and successfully met with many members of both the Assembly and the Senate. “The meetings with the staff of the [senators] were really enjoyable. We had the chance to lobby and show them how passionate we are about the bill,” Singhal said.

Additionally, transportation had to be arranged independently for students to get to Albany. Some schools had arranged buses, but the Spectator board faced the challenge of finding transportation independently. “Organizing transportation was a bit tricky, but [Wadhwa] organized our transportation through [Amtrak] and got us a group discount so the fares were cheaper,” Singhal said.

Following the trip, the bill will now require support from the teachers’ union, necessitating future students to lobby these entities. Despite the many challenges, students ultimately enjoyed their experience with NVNY, finding the trip to be a good outlet for their voices. “The meetings with the staff of the [senators] were really enjoyable,” Singhal said. “I would definitely go again. There are plans to go back to Albany in April to continue advocating for the bill.”