Adoption of a New Voices law is not the end of the story, as these Illinois high schoolers found out

A school district in a suburb of Chicago censored an article published in Naperville Central High School's newspaper The Central Times, then locked away the print issues for nearly 24 hours, which students say violated their rights as journalists.

Editor-in-Chief Vivian Zhao and Profiles Editor Amisha Sethi intended to report multiple eyewitness accounts of a special needs student causing frequent classroom disruptions, including punching a teacher in the head, resulting in a concussion. They took care not to identify the student either by name or description.

This was a serious news story of clear interest to the school and community at a public school in a state with a New Voices Law. The Illinois law, adopted in 2016, protects the press freedom and editorial independence of high school journalists. 

So why were they censored?

"... the district did not really understand what our rights are as journalists,” Zhao said. “... under the New Voices Act we were protected; but I do not think that the district seems to understand that.”

The students were eventually able to distribute their paper, but the story they wrote was very different, and much less pointed than the one they set out to report. This self-censorship, followed by censorship by the school, speak to why we need New Voices laws in the first place. 

SPLC is working with students and administrators in New Voices states to be sure that laws are implemented appropriately and that everyone knows about their legal rights and obligations. If students and advisers in states with New Voices laws believe their rights are being violated, please reach out to SPLC right away.

For help with censorship (whether you're in a New Voices state or not) please contact SPLC's legal hotline

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Q: Am I required to explain why I want a particular record when submitting an open records request?

 Most of the time, states and the federal government FOI laws make clear that the motivation behind an open records request is irrelevant. Recordkeepers, most laws say, may not even ask such a question. There are a few quirks, but they should present no barrier for student journalists engaged in bona fide news reporting (no matter the topic). 

For example, a couple of states treat requests for data that will be used for commercial profit differently, sometimes charging extra fees. Also, Kansas and Montana have both had odd cases handed down (older cases — but still on the books) where judges have allowed government agencies to examine whether the interest in the information is legitimate or sufficient to overcome competing interests in secrecy. Kansas, for example, apparently limits the right of the public to inspect governmental records to those situations where “there is a laudable object to accomplish or a real and actual interest in obtaining the information.” (Such a provision should not present a barrier to Kansas student media engaged in newsgathering.)

If your motives or purposes for requesting public information are questioned, you are right to push back and reach out to the SPLC or a media attorney for more information or assistance.

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