Pressing for a Bit of Freedom

Digital illustration by Nava Mach.

53 years ago today, American students won a crucial victory in the Supreme Court. In the case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a seven-justice majority, including former GDS trustee Thurgood Marshall, ruled that, with extremely limited exceptions, the Constitution granted public school students the same freedom of speech as adults.

But students’ rights suffered a devastating legal loss 19 years later, when the Court carved out larger allowances for censorship of student newspapers.

To rectify that wrong, 15 states have restored student journalists’ right to editorial independence with what are called New Voices laws. Congressman Jamie Raskin ’79, a former Bit editor, led the charge for Maryland’s New Voices law in the state’s senate.

Here’s the problem: New Voices laws do not apply to private schools like GDS. So several private schools across the country have taken the lead in establishing press freedom for their students, without any law requiring it.

In June and again, more formally, in late August, the then-editors-in-chief of The Augur Bit proposed to administrators that GDS do the same—that is, guarantee that student editors, not agents of the school, will always get to decide what to publish in the Bit.

Six months of discussions, revisions, questions and answers later, the school has yet to leap at that opportunity.

Today, national Student Press Freedom Day, we feel compelled to explain what is at stake for the entire community in the Bit’s push for editorial independence—and why a failure by school leaders to take that courageous step would be a loss for all GDS students.

We live in a world and a country in which journalists are increasingly discredited, derided or even despised. GDS—a school with a striking number of renowned professional journalists in its alumni ranks—is perfectly positioned to become a beacon of student press freedom.

GDS administrators, or other members of the community, may not agree with all the Bit’s editorial judgments. That’s partly the point: The role of a student newspaper is distinct from the role of the administration. Indeed, part of any journalist’s job is to hold those in power to account, even and especially when delicate or unflattering stories make them uncomfortable.

GDS leaders tout the school’s respect for students’ independence: “Children are capable of acting on their own behalf,” Head of School Russell Shaw writes in his welcome letter on GDS’ website. “At GDS, students are trusted to make good decisions.” Ensuring the Bit’s freedom is a golden opportunity to put those words into practice.

Administrators have always, and in the past year especially (with the advent of the fledgling Civic Lab), emphasized preparing students to be active, engaged participants in civic life. An independent Augur Bit would be a shining example of that commitment to democracy, for students to see and absorb.

And since when was GDS afraid to do something bold and worthy that not many other schools (or, in this case, not many private schools) had done?

GDS administrators are thankfully not in the practice of censoring or demanding to review the Bit’s content. So, in one sense, the policy we have proposed would be a formal guarantee of the editorial independence the school has recently afforded us.

But, perhaps more importantly, a promise to never censor would be a public, lasting signal of GDS’ support for student journalists and their deserved, if not legally protected, rights. It would inspire ripples of enthusiasm through the community.

Students, including but not only the 68 members of the Bit’s staff, would know that their school’s leaders let them participate in an open exchange of information and ideas, one guided by the principles of journalistic ethics and advised by a teacher but unfettered by the risk of administrative intervention.

Everyone—students, parents, teachers, alumni and prospective families—would know that GDS takes its commitments to student autonomy and civic engagement seriously by bringing its students’ rights up to par with those at many local public schools.

And administrators would know that, at the end of the day, they had done the right thing—something, unlike their present trepidation, of which to be proud.