Editorial: Law will give students better view of how free press works

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted8/4/2016 4:33 PM
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  • A new Illinois law gives student journalists more control over decisions about what news to cover and how to cover it.

      A new Illinois law gives student journalists more control over decisions about what news to cover and how to cover it. Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

By loosening the restrictions on high school journalists last week, the state of Illinois just dumped a whole lot of responsibility on their shoulders.

And that's a good thing.

The bill that passed unanimously in the House and Senate and got Gov. Rauner's signature last Friday makes a subtle but significant change in who is responsible for the content of scholastic journalism -- which are high school newspapers, newspaper websites and yearbooks.

Old rules: School administrators could restrict publication of a piece, or a photo. New rules: Administrators still can reject content, but in so doing they have to show it falls into an "unprotected" category, meaning it must be either obscene or libelous, an unwarranted invasion of privacy or likely to provoke disruptive or unlawful behavior.

Students in public high schools now will have a legally protected right to choose what stories and photos will be in their publications, even those produced as part of a class.

This is an important addendum to a teenager's civic education. Civic education teaches students the responsibility to be aware of current events, to be good stewards of their communities and to act on their beliefs, among other things. Good citizens are also savvy consumers of news, and can distinguish fact from opinion and spin.

Whether they choose a career in journalism or take another path, understanding that good journalism is verifiable, independent and authoritative, ultimately makes teens better and more engaged citizens.

This law is not intended to turn every high school publication into a muckraker, nor is it a knee-jerk reaction to a particular school not being allowed to publish a story. It does, however, raise the bar for students and their advisers.

On this day in 1852, Hosea C. Paddock, Paddock Publications' founder, was born in upstate New York. The journalistic legacy he would create would be the importance of a tempered commitment from a newspaper to free-flowing information and ideas in the interest of furthering democracy and bettering the community. The commercial leg of his famous three-pronged motto to "fear God, tell the truth and make money" may not apply directly to student journalism, but its implication that readers, customers and constituents must be satisfied in order for a publication to thrive certainly is.

Contrary to throwing open the doors to bad taste and irresponsible reporting, Illinois' law adds a new layer of responsibility to the production of high school journalism and will give both young journalists and the student constituencies they serve a greater and more realistic understanding of the role a free press plays in society.

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