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Student journalists in Corning push for NY bill protecting student press freedom

High school seniors Ashti Tiwari and Adah Gray oversee a team of student journalists at Corning Painted Post High School.
Michael Simons
Corning Painted Post High School
High school seniors Ashti Tiwari and Adah Gray oversee a team of student journalists at Corning Painted Post High School.

Student journalists across the country are pushing for their states to expand student press freedom.

In Corning, a group of students – and their advisor – have been leading the charge in New York. The group recently joined dozens of other students from around the state to speak with state legislators in Albany.

Adah Gray is a senior at Corning Painted Post High School. She’s also an editor in chief for one of her school’s student publications, Tesserae.

"These three teams in here are our coverage team," Gray said. "They do the photos, sports stories — all of that, plus weekly coverage."

Tesserae is the high school's yearbook. The yearbook has become much more than just class pictures and autograph pages.

"We've covered like banned books, dress code, school safety, stuff like that," said Ashti Tiwari, Gray's fellow editor in chief.

The students publish in-depth news features and do regular news coverage of school events. There's a video team and a social media team.

The two seniors said they’re lucky. Their principal and teachers are really supportive — even though their work has at times sparked controversy in their community.

"When I was a freshman, we told a story about a senior that was going through a pregnancy and how the couple was dealing with it," Gray said. "And I know there were a few community members who were like, 'I'm not really sure that we should be like promoting this in the yearbook.'"

Tiwari and Gray are part of a group of students across New York campaigning for a bill that would protect student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

They admit not all students enjoy the same editorial freedom they do.

A 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, established students' free speech rights when they’re at school.

But in a 1988 decision, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the court ruled speech by student journalists can pose an exception.

Gray put it this way.

"The example we always use is students in our school can go to a rally supporting like LGBTQ youth," Gray said. "But if we, if a student journalism program, decides to write a story on that same rally, it can get censored."

The students said New York's proposed Student Journalist Free Speech Act would still allow teachers and school officials to review student work before it’s published.

But school leaders would only be able to block publication under certain circumstances.

Gray and Tiwari’s teacher, Mike Simons, has been helping students at Corning advocate for the bill.

"Kids cannot publish content that would incite violence, that would encourage people to break the law, that would present a material disruption to the school day. They can't publish obscenity or libel or slander," Simons said.

There is also a provision in the bill that give school leaders discretion to block a story from publication if it is found to violate reasonable expectations of privacy.

Simons said the bill helps to set clear guidelines for what’s allowed and what’s not. He said that’s good for student journalists, teachers and school leaders.

Simons said students at Corning have been pushing for the bill in Albany for six years now. The current version is still in committee in both the state Senate and the Assembly.

Bob Lowry works for the New York State Council of School Superintendents. It’s one of the groups that has lodged opposition to the bill.

Lowry said his group isn't against school newspapers. He said they’re often a great opportunity for students to learn about journalism and publishing.

But Lowry said many superintendents think the bill would make it easier for students to publish controversial stories — and they worry it could backfire.

"The worst fear is that, because of perhaps intense controversies in a community, a district says, 'We have to shut down the student paper,'" Lowry said. "And then that opportunity is lost."

Lowry said in recent years, many educators have felt the pressure of increased political polarization, particularly as so-called "parental rights" groups gain a foothold in some communities.

Lowry said nearly half of the superintendents his group represents said political division had significantly affected the way they run their districts.

Politics matters, Lowry said. Superintendents answer to an elected school board. Voters have veto power over local school budgets every year.

"Schools are uniquely democratic, and I think that's a good thing," Lowry said. "But it also means that they need to be attentive to community sentiment."

Ashti Tiwari, one of the students at Corning Painted Post, said students will always experience issues that will spark controversy.

"Race, gender, sexuality," Tiwari said. "In my opinion, they are things that we face as students today."

Gray said good journalism helps students see different sides of those stories – even if they're seen as controversial.

"We've seen the impact [our work] has on our school and community in a positive way. It gets people talking," Gray said.

Gray and Tiwari said that’s why they want other students to be able to report freely on those difficult topics in their own communities.