Column: Student journalists deserve more protection

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As Hurricane Irma churned through Florida, a team of 27 broadcast and online journalists bunkered down in Gainesville, at times eating and sleeping in their workplace to make sure the public received reliable real-time safety updates.

There's nothing extraordinary about reporters working around the clock during natural disasters, except that these journalists were college students. As the backbone of Florida's Public Radio Emergency Network coverage team, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications students helped provide round-the-clock weather reports to a statewide audience of 20 million people — few of whom realized they were relying on students to bring them the day's most essential news.

Students are the "invisible army" behind the headlines, integrated so seamlessly into the media industry that audiences rarely appreciate how much of their news is student-produced.

In a 2014 study, the Pew Research Center found that one out of every six journalists covering state capitols across the country is a student. Students have been part of prize-winning teams fortifying the depleted ranks of shrinking newsrooms on projects like ProPublica's November 2016 "Electionland," which used social media to track voting irregularities and malfunctions.

And it's not just college students, either. With newsroom employment down 42 percent since 1990 and posting new lows each year, overworked professionals are regularly being scooped even by high-schoolers, like the ones in Pittsburg, Kan., whose acclaimed investigative reporting led to the removal of a principal who exaggerated her educational credentials.

But while students work as peers on par with salaried professionals in the newsroom, the same is not true in the courtroom. There, students occupy a decidedly second-class legal status ill-befitting their importance in fulfilling community information needs — and nowhere is worse than Florida.

In Florida, those indefatigable students whose 'round-the-clock dedication helped millions stay safe during Irma lack any meaningful legal protection if the government tries to censor their work, retaliate for unflattering news reports, or expose their anonymous sources.

Florida is in a small minority of states that excludes unpaid journalists from the benefit of the reporter's privilege, which enables journalists to avoid jail if pressed to disclose unpublished information or give up confidential sources. Florida's 1998 privilege statute protects only paid professionals, leaving students in peril if police or prosecutors demand their notes or their recorded interviews.

Even more concerning, Florida students are vulnerable to the "anything-goes" level of censorship legitimized by the U.S. Supreme Court in its errant 1988 opinion, Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, which stripped journalists working in the academic setting of the First Amendment protection that professionals take for granted.

As a result of Hazelwood, high schools (and at times, colleges) have abused their censorship authority to suppress unfavorable news or opinions in the name of protecting their lavishly cultivated reputations.

A December 2016 study issued by the American Association of University Professors documented multiple cases of image-motivated retaliation against student media, and challenged colleges to join in supporting stronger legal protection for journalism students and their equally vulnerable faculty advisers. The report concluded: "Few colleges and universities are 'walking the walk' of civic engagement in their governance of journalism, and too many are abandoning higher education's traditional commitment to free and independent journalistic voices."

Fortunately, a nationwide reform movement — known as "New Voices" in recognition of the groundbreaking New Voices of North Dakota statute — is succeeding in enacting sensible laws that limit schools' and colleges' ability to abuse Hazelwood censorship authority for illicit image-protection purposes. Thirteen states now offer modest legally protected rights to students that, while still more limited than professional-strength protection, enable young journalists to publish without fear that a story exposing campus mismanagement or safety hazards will result in a punitive backlash. Six of these statutes have passed just since 2015, with Nevada, Rhode Island and Vermont the latest to acknowledge what editors and news directors already know: That student journalism is real journalism, and that real journalism cannot thrive in a climate of insecurity and fear.

The American Bar Association's Board of Governors recently threw its unanimous support behind the New Voices movement with a resolution that should be heard in statehouses from Austin to Albany to Tallahassee: "Meaningful civic education requires that students feel safe and empowered to discuss issues of social and political concern in the responsible, accountable forum of journalistic media."

It is past time for the law to dignify the work of America's most vulnerable journalists, without whom our communities would be less informed and our government agencies less accountable.

Frank D. LoMonte teaches media law at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, where he serves as director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. He is the volunteer national co-chair of New Voices USA, www.newvoicesus.com, which advocates for the legal rights of student journalists.

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