Christopher Denkovich took an honors civics and government class this year at Freedom Area High School and came away from it with an understanding of the legislative environment.
He took those lessons with him on June 22 when he traveled to Harrisburg to lobby for a bill important to the incoming editor-in-chief of his school’s newspaper, his fellow staff members, and his adviser and journalism teacher. “This has just been incredible,” the 16-year-old said. “You can sit in a classroom all day, but you can’t learn as much as you do with actual experience.”
Students and advisers from the Beaver County school, Conestoga High School and State College Area High School lobbied for a New Voices-based bill that calls for stronger protections for student journalists and their advisers and journalism teachers.
The legislation, Senate Bill 622 introduced by state Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-West Chester, and House Bill 1309 by state Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester County, calls for school districts to implement policies that place administrative review of student publications and communications in the hands of student editors to help ensure journalistic integrity, a news release on Comitta’s website states.
Efforts to protect Pennsylvania students and their advisers began in 2018, but the first Senate bill did not move to a vote. Currently, Pennsylvania’s education regulations ensure students have the right to express themselves but still allow principals and school administrators to review and have the final say on pieces of student journalism, according to information posted on Comitta’s website.
Right now 17 states — the latest being West Virginia — have passed New Voices legislation, and the coalition in Pennsylvania — it includes the Pennsylvania School Press Association, Journalism Education Association and the Student Press Law Center — wants to see a similar measure pass soon.
The students talked to 71 legislators and their staff members during the one-day visit, Denkovich said. “I think it was really cool to see,” he continued. “Most of our perspective of growing up is that legislators are far away. You can reach them just by showing up. You can talk to them. Everyone was super nice. They care about what we had to say.”
The SPLC’s website states that the New Voices laws counteract the impact of the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, which dramatically changed the balance of student press rights.
“Student journalists want to focus on honest and ethical journalism that reflects their communities, not on navigating the subjective and arbitrary concerns of adults in and outside of their school. No student should be forced to silence their truths to protect their teachers, and no teacher should lose their job for supporting their students’ quality work,” Hillary Davis, advocacy and organizing director for the Student Press Law Center, said in Comitta’s news release.
In Pennsylvania, the bill’s supporters emphasize that it allows for the censorship of student media only if it is libelous or slanderous, contains an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates state or federal law, or incites students to violate the law or school policy or disrupt the orderly operation of a school. The bill also prohibits retaliation against student media advisers who refuse to censor student journalists.
The supporters note that student journalists are bound to the same code of ethics as professional journalists as determined by the Society of Professional Journalists, which means that they seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and are accountable and transparent. This work builds students’ critical thinking, research and fact-checking, media literacy, teamwork and collaboration, and problem-solving skills in addition to their writing and editing.
The advisers pointed to the important student role in the lobbying day and other efforts to push the legislation. At Conestoga in Berwyn, Ben Shapiro, a rising senior and the student newspaper editor-in-chief, and others visited and communicated with Comitta and Shusterman and helped organize the news conference and visit logistics.
Denkovich and his peers have not experienced censorship at Freedom Area, but their adviser and teacher, Aaron Fitzpatrick, knows others have across the state. “Mr. Fitzpatrick, he doesn’t get super excited about a lot of things. He’s a kind of go-with-the-flow kind of guy. He was so passionate about this, it got us fired up. This is exactly what we need. We’re pedal to the metal. Let’s give it everything we have.”
Fitzpatrick, who has been teaching for 14 years, has advised the newspaper, yearbook and broadcast efforts at Freedom for 12 years. He is also president of the Pennsylvania School Press Association and is a Journalism Education Association member, a national organization for journalism teachers and advisers.
He’s worked under three principals during his advising tenure, and all have been good relationships. The FHS Press student staff members direct the content and the editing process, and then they show their work to Fitzpatrick and the principals, mainly for an overarching review of what will be published.
“[We’ve] never been censored so far. They [the students] show it to me in case I see something major. No major content changes occur at this point,” Fitzpatrick said.
He knows his peers don’t share the same experience. Sixteen-year student journalism adviser Cyndi Hyatt was removed from her position at Conestoga High School last year when a new principal took exception to the stories her students, who have won many state and national awards for their work as has she, covered in their newspaper, The Spoke. A year in review story “hurt” her principal, Hyatt said. As a result, she ended up retiring early last December.
At Saegertown High School in Crawford County, administrators, school board directors and some community residents have pressured student journalists’ coverage of LGBTQ+ issues, among other topics, and an ongoing book banning effort.
Fitzpatrick and Hyatt believe as journalism teachers, they can lead the students in the right direction. “Advising has been my passion and mission for most of my teaching career, and to be replaced after the students left for the summer with no concrete reason why is another reason why New Voices is so important,” Hyatt said last year. Not only do students “need to be able to use their voices freely and without censorship, but [also] advisers should feel safe promoting and teaching those ideas.”
He is also worried about the cases he doesn’t hear about as well as self-censorship to avoid controversy. “From my perspective, that is way more prevalent than censorship issues. Students are worried that their advisers will get into trouble or they will be targeted if their viewpoints don’t match the majority [of students] or their school board’s,” Fitzpatrick said.
The advisers and students know their bill will take a backstage to the budget process currently underway in Harrisburg. Fitzpatrick has been told that legislators might hold on to it and make it part of an omnibus bill, which might not occur until November or December or even next June. “We just missed getting looped into the budget for this year,” he said. The group has confidence it will pass the House but will most likely have more of a hurdle in the Senate.
The group said organizations or anyone who wants to get involved can let their elected officials know why this important; supporting letters can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Comitta’s news release and from the advisers’ personal experience, the timing is right because often their student journalists are covering ground not included anymore in local publications. Between 2004 and 2019, there was a 29% decrease in local newspapers across the United States, she stated.
“There’s a lot of news deserts out there,” Fitzgerald said. “Student journalists are doing the important work, even being the paper of record. The public deserves to know what is happening in their communities.”
Denkovich covered Freedom Area school board meetings for his paper in his past roles, which extend to the district’s middle school paper, the Bulldog Barker. Sometimes, he said, he was the only person in attendance.
He loves his journalistic work, although he is considering heading to law school right now. “It’s the people in the class. It is such a unique environment. We’re not sitting there taking tests and doing homework,” Denkovich said. “We’re writing about things we enjoy. We spend so much time together: late nights, pizza, snacks and drinks. The time you spend with people, especially classes are taken over multiple years, you get so close, you’re more of a family than a staff.”
And, he said, he still goes to most of those school board meetings.
Fitzpatrick’s push for the New Voices bill will not waver. “I want to support student journalism the best I can, and to me it extends beyond the walls of my building and the lines of my district,” he said. “It was a cause I believed in having done the job. I realized how motivated our students are, how well they do the job.”
The advisers and students will continue to work on the legislation, capitalizing on their efforts last week and following up on their contact work.
“People there [in Harrisburg] didn’t know about New Voices,” Denkovich said. “They didn’t have feelings either way. Right now, we only have Democratic sponsors. The Conestoga students reached out to Republicans, including conservative, hard-core Republicans. It should be easier to get the bill passed now. We may go back [to Harrisburg]. We will have to see how far our current push takes us before we make a plan.”