Student Press Exceptionalism

Sonja R. West, University of Georgia School of Law


Constitutional protection for student speakers is an issue that has been hotly contested for almost 50 years. Several commentators have made powerful arguments that the Court has failed to sufficiently protect the First Amendment rights of all students. But this debate has overlooked an even more troubling reality about the current state of expressive protection for students—the especially harmful effect of the Court’s precedents on student journalists. Under the Court’s jurisprudence, schools may regulate with far greater breadth and ease the speech of student journalists than of their non-press classmates. Schools are essentially free to censor the student press even when the speech at issue is truthful, legally obtained, non-disruptive, and about matters of public concern.

As a constitutional matter, the lack of protection for student journalists should be alarming. This is because the suppression of student journalists not only potentially violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause (as does the censorship of other student speech), but it also infringes on the constitutional guarantee of a free press. Unlike their non-press peers, student journalists fulfill distinctive roles that the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized as constitutionally valuable. And like reporters outside of the school setting, these young journalists face high risks of government oppression and manipulation if left unprotected. Official censorship of student journalists thus raises numerous First Amendment concerns that should demand heightened—not weakened—court scrutiny.