By Jannat Sheikh
To combat mounting pressure from many high school and college administration’s interference, a free speech group is pressing legislation to bolster student’s rights.
Free Press, a nonpartisan organization fighting to save the free and open Internet, curb runaway media consolidation, protect press freedom, and ensure diverse voices are represented in media including student journalism has launched New Voices, a campaign to increase community engagement with local journalism.
Assembly Bill 4028, introduced June 30, 2016 in New Jersey and is still pending legislation, states, “a student at a public school or a public institution of higher education who gathers, compiles, writes, edits, photographs, records, or prepares information for dissemination in school-sponsored media has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, and is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of the school-sponsored media.”
In 2015, News Voices was launched in several communities across the state of New Jersey to focus on connecting with the local newsrooms. News Voices is now active in six communities: Asbury Park, Atlantic City, Camden, Morristown, Newark, and New Brunswick. Hundreds of people, including journalist, activists, students, faith leaders, union workers, and artists, have come together at the News Voices’ events according to NewsVoices.net. At these events, people discuss pressing local issues and ways that they can collaborate to tell stories with impact.
As a career journalist, communication professor, and proud member of a Democratic society, Russ Crespolini said he is pleased to see support for public-interest journalism.
“When we first learned about this last year at the New Jersey Press Association (NJPA) I was intrigued by their goals, some of which included expanding protections for journalists in New Jersey,” Crespolini said. “We are at an interesting crossroads when it comes to journalism in America. The pendulum had swung so far away from traditional news media over the last several years that it gave rise to this populist propaganda in poorly vetted social media posts.”
In addition, Crespolini said that no one practiced media literacy but suddenly there is turning point. Crespolini explained that since November of 2016 there has been this push for professional media content and real news from real sources.
“It is an amazing time to be a journalist because we have been reminded, as a nation, how important a role the media plays in our Democracy.” Crespolini said. “And, this New Voices initiative is a natural extension of that.”
Like Crespolini, career journalist, journalism professor and the Legacy Project’s Co-Chairman John Soltes said journalism is the hallmark of a free and open society.
“I am excited by the many new ways that the industry is reinventing itself while simultaneously sticking to the bedrocks of solid reporting, engaging writing and coverage of important news stories,” Soltes said. “I welcome new efforts to promote the journalism trade because this will lead to greater civic engagement and understanding of how government, society, politics, religion, sports, entertainment, and communities operate.”
In regards to local journalism at County College of Morris, both Soltes and Crespolini said that the independent student-run newspaper, the Youngtown Edition, represents the ideas of free press.
Soltes said that the communication department and the Youngtown Edition offer support to those committed to journalism as a career and those interested in learning some of the transferable skills of the industry.
“With any academic discipline that has a direct real-world application, it’s important to always adapt and evolve the lessons learned, while still sticking to those principled values of citizenship, verification, truth and relevancy,” Soltes said.
Crespolini said that the college community is extremely fortunate that the communication department and student journalists receive the backing of the administration.
“Long before my time here, previous President Ed Yaw was a staunch supporter of the Youngtown Edition and respected its autonomy,” Crespolini said. “The Youngtown has always been allowed to function as designed, a free and independent student newspaper. This has continued since the arrival of Dr. Iacono last year.”
Crespolini said that all newspaper advisors ever really need in terms of support is for people to cooperate with the learning journalists and otherwise stay out of their way. At a New Jersey Press Association awards ceremony last year, Crespolini said he was regaled with horror stories of other school papers that were frequently harassed by their administrators. He explained that some schools began publishing their own competing product which focused on positive public relations material.
“Definitely not a reader service, and definitely not what journalism is about,” Crespolini said. “We were stunned to hear those stories. Mostly because interference like that is unethical and in some cases actionable. And in our case, unthinkable because we couldn’t fathom something like that happening here.”
Editor-in-Chief of the Youngtown Edition Brett Friedensohn said that he agreed with the bill because other schools need the protection.
“I support News Voices New Jersey, but Youngtown doesn’t need it like other school papers do,” Friedensohn said. “Even though we have plenty of content that isn’t flattering to CCM, I think our administration understands that to have the strongest journalism program possible, they shouldn’t try to impose any direct action against us. That’s unlike many schools, high school or college.”
Friedensohn has worked on “The Voyager,” the paper at Parsippany Hills High School, and he said that the administration there reserved the right to censor anything they planned to print and required that they have them review everything before publication.
“To my knowledge, they didn’t enforce their red tape in my time there, but that always loomed over us,” Friedensohn said. “We never truly had complete independence, and with something like New Voices New Jersey, they would’ve known that they needed to back off because otherwise, we could’ve imposed legal action against them, and we probably would’ve won.”
Parsippany Hills is not alone as a censored school in New Jersey. The College Media Association presented their first Frank LoMonte Ethics in Journalism Award, a nationwide honor collegiate media advisors, Thursday, Oct. 26 to former Student Press Law Center Director Ernabel Demillo who was fired from her position as school paper advisor at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City for standing up to her administration’s efforts to censor the paper.
Friedensohn said that the CCM community should write to state legislators and ask them to support this bill.
“Also, I encourage all students interested in journalism to join Youngtown,” Friedensohn said. “We’re willing to teach if you’re willing to learn.”