Free Speech Not Blanket Right

Annette Ungermann, Opinion Editor

How free is student speech? Perhaps a better question is: how limited is it?

I found myself musing over these questions often during the past few weeks as I was confronted with an article assignment that encountered administrative resistance, among other setbacks. For the 1st time in my high school career, I was flat-out denied access to student and teacher sources. The right to question, interview, and write the truth was in part, denied.

And to my surprise, it was legal.

I fond myself Googling case law on student confidentiality and libel and acquainting myself with the standards to which student (and professional) journalism is held. In journalism, it seems that all doors leading to reliable sources of information are ready and available to swing open. But the business of reporting truth does have its limits, and especially with minors, many doors are shut.

To confront this fact was uncomfortable. And infuriating. What’s the point in reporting “truth” if it’s filtered? Are we able to call it “truth” at all? A fellow reporter and I were eager to bring an unfiltered, unsanitized story to light.

Ultimately, our efforts weren’t fully successful, if success is measured, in this case, by the amount of free reign given in writing a controversial article. Being forced to step back and reflect, though, is part of the process as we attempt to provide concise, accurate information that benefits our readership.  Finding the most effective path to this end is part of the challenge of being a good journalist.

As stated in California Education Code Section 48907, “Pupils of the public schools, including charter schools, shall have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press. . . and the right of expression in official publications. . . except that expression shall be prohibited which is obscene, libelous, or slanderous. Also prohibited shall be material that so incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger. . . or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

Yet the law doesn’t seem to limit the crowd of loud voices, often in political debate, that proudly tout their “freedom of speech.” It is the ultimate defense to a flawed argument that demands a concession from the other side. The threat of encroaching on someone’s inalienable right is viewed as inherently un-American. That is a fallacy.

If anything, my experience serves as another telling reminder that the blanket of “free speech” is something we hide under out of willful ignorance. This freedom is not a cure-all. It does not strengthen an argument.

The limitations on my freedom of expression in this instance actually helped me to produce productive content about a topic that is nuanced and sensitive.

My commitment to the truth will always be unwavering. Our freedom of expression is not tainted in realizing the full scope of the law that ultimately protects us. Even given slight limitations on the information we publish, La Puma still reflects this commitment to the truth, one that is especially vital at a time when the debate over the validity of news media is particularly politically contentious.

In this issue, we report on some provocative events and issues. Ultimately, we feature stories that adhere to the highest level of truth of which we are able to report, with limited speech. Such is the world.