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My journey to student press rights advocacy

2019

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New Voices is a student-powered, nonpartisan grassroots movement of state-based activists who seek to protect student press freedom with state laws. These laws counteract the impact of the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, which dramatically changed the balance of student press rights. New Voices supporters include advocates in law, education, journalism, and civics who want schools and colleges to be more welcoming places for student voices.

With New Voices volunteers active in more than a dozen states, and bills expected to be filed in many of those. Along with the 14 states that already have New Voices laws, that’s more than half the country.

As part of this campaign, I visited my local representative's (Melissa Shusterman) office, in order to discuss the importance of such a bill in today's climate. While it was ultimately not passed, we still learned a lot about the process of understanding such a bill.

Earlier this year my district mentioned to our advisers that they were planning on taking control of spoke.news, a previously independently-owned and run website that has been operating that way for about 10 years. This came as a surprise, as we had never before been in a situation where the district was interested in the status of the website.

 

Eventually, the district formally notified us through our advisers that they planned to move forward with this action and wanted to provide us with an opportunity to react if needed. The administration was attempting to take this action based on the grounds that we were in violation of copyright laws due to them owning the name "The Spoke." The administration was offering us a meeting to clarify any concerns we might have. However, we were still researching the possibility of keeping the domain name, as we were unsure of the validity of their claim to the name of the publication.

2020

The

plan I

implemented

  1. Set up a non-profit or GoFundMe for various funding purposes, whether it be for the website or for the paper as a whole. (We wanted to have money available.)

    1. Determine what money belongs to the district and what money belongs to us.

    2. Set up a plan to create a separate bank account for subscription money going forward.

  2. Keep an eye on school board policy, as we had almost lost student press rights in the past via silent policy changes.

    1. Check meeting minutes on a monthly basis and keep an eye out for changes.

  3. Reach out to friends of The Spoke and see whom we can get in contact with.

    1. Contacts:

      1. Meghan Morris 

      2. Seth Zwiefler

      3. Henry Rome

      4. John Yu 

      5. Lavi Ben Dor

      6. Betty Ben Dor

      7. Avery Maslowsky

      8. Justin Huang

  4. Email template: I created this in hopes of reaching as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

To whom it may concern,

 

My name is Ananya Kulkarni, and I am currently Editor-in-Chief of The Spoke along with my Co-Editor-in-Chief, Christina Lee. We are reaching out to you because our school administration is currently trying to take ownership of our student-run and student-owned website (spoke.news).

 

Our administration is attempting to take this action based on the grounds that we are in violation of copyright laws due to the fact that they own the name "The Spoke.” The administration is offering us a meeting to clarify any concerns we might have. However, we are still researching the possibility of keeping the domain name as we are not sure of the validity of their claim to the name of the publication. We are also unsure of what the implications of turning over the domain would be. For example, we were wondering if that would give the school administrative access to create or delete stories, or worse, institute prior review. Though our school has always operated under the Tinker standard since Pennsylvania is a Tinker State, we are unsure of what giving up control of our website would mean as it would pertain to what rights we would still maintain as student journalists.

 

We are in the process of determining if we have any legal ground to stand on as we enter conversations with the school. We were also trying to understand the difference between the school owning the copyright to the name and the brand “The Spoke”. Additionally, the domain name is registered to a graduated member of the Spoke, we were wondering if he would be the one who would have to turn the domain over to the school?

5. Email SPLC and hit the panic button at JEA if needed.


contingency plans

  1. If we lose our website unwillingly: 

    1. We sign a statement saying we refuse to write for a non-independent website.

  2. If we lose funding for any press rights advocacy works:

    1. We consider the possibility of operating independently from the school.

    2. Make an announcement saying we are going independent.

  3. Moving to online in case of a loss of press rights:
    1. Start fundraising initiatives.

    1. I was willing to fund the costs for one issue as well as foot the website cost if needed.

    2. Use the connections to publications we have to advocate for the importance of student press rights.

    3. Have a letter-writing campaign.

  4. Operation of the Spoke in case of emergency:

    1. Run the Spoke out of Ananya’s basement.

      1. We all have access to the entire Adobe suite.

      2. Using money from GoFundMe and non-profit.

        1. Even if there is no money, we can use it online to push our narrative and go online for a year.

        2. A meeting with alumni has been set up.


 

Post-administrative meeting steps

 

What happened: When our adviser met with some administrative members, this is what they were told:

 

The district:

 

  1. Owns the name “the Spoke” 

  2. Wants to increase their ability to protect us 

  3. Wants the website to exist under the auspices of the district 

  4. Wants to take paying for it (“it should have never been paid for by students in the first place”) 

  5. Media consent forms are not collected by The Spoke, which is an issue

 

We then met with the advisers who conveyed the issues the district had relayed to them.

 

After this call, I led an alumni outreach effort. I spoke to Henry Rome and Seth Zwiefler first (two past members of The Spoke who had both dealt with a past district push to change school board publication policy). They gave me some baseline information, but I still needed to consult with legal counsel to understand what exactly our rights were. 

 

I set up a call with Mr. Mike Hiestand at SPLC, who gave us this information since we had a lot of questions regarding content law and what steps we were able to take to maintain our independence. 

 

I also set up a meeting between us and the administration because we wanted to keep an open channel of communication and work together as much as possible where we could. 

 

We then had a meeting with the administration, which I led and which my Co-Editor-in-Chief took meticulous notes on since we were denied our request to record the meeting. 

 

At the meeting, we were told that: 

 

If there is a thought to continue to be independent, then there would be things we would have to discuss about that.

 

1. Spoke is owned by the district

2. The name THE spoke is owned by the school and the articles that are in the paper cannot go on the independent online version. The online independent versions must be different.

3. TETV things cannot be put on independent unless you get permission from them

4. Staff cannot be involved as a district employee


 

While I wanted to be as cooperative in this situation as possible, to be entirely honest, as a student journalist, all of these claims set off alarm bells in my head, but again in the spirit of well-researched conversation, I decided to hold off on responding until I was able to clarify my concerns with our legal counsel, especially their claims about the district-owning student work solely because it was made for a class. For this reason, in one of our meeting, I asked if this was a policy that extended to all their classes or just our publication, raising content created for studio art and other content-driven classes as examples, and if that was the case- if students were being made aware that they were losing rights to 4 years worth of work by signing up for classes at Conestoga- a public high school.

 

After many hours of research, this resulted in this proposal I wrote which clarified some of those concerns and the district rolled back their claim to student work as well as our independent website: 

How we prepared for every

outcome

My proposal

I am happy to report that as a result of this proposal and a final meeting, we have since maintained the independence of our website without issues or concerns from the administration. 

 

That said, I remember feeling lost, not knowing the years of history behind The Spoke’s fight for independence over time. For this reason, one of my personal goals as Editor-in-Chief this year was to pass down what I learned. I compiled every administrative conversation that took place going back to 2009 in one document by talking to various Editors-in-Chief from over the years. I chose not to share this document here as it contains the personal names, information, and experiences of dozens of reporters for The Spoke. 

Telling my story

Following the events of the summer, I was determined to better understand what allowed the district to take such action and what implications that has for web student journalism.

 

For this reason, I created the following toolkit and founded the Tinker for Truth project, researching the intricacies of student journalism legislation and how every editor can better protect themselves from losing their independence. The following toolkit takes examples from our own school publication policy in order to give every student journalist a sense of how to make sense of a lot of the technicalities written into policy beyond relying on the Tinker and Hazelwood standard.

This is an extremely important step as inspecting school publication policies can lead to a shocking discovery.  For example, while we had always believed we were a publication that operated based on the Tinker standard, I have come to realize we actually operate using the Hazelwood standard with a kind of "Tinker contingency plan" written into our policy. 

To see more of my research, advice to student journalists, and toolkit design, see the pdf below. 

Why I advocate for student press rights

and why you should consider doing the same

By Ananya Kulkarni, Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Spoke

(As published in February 2021)

Cartoon courtesy of John Phillips

As student journalists, we search for the hard truth, and in my searches, I have discovered the biggest villain of all. This pernicious evil has seeped into every crack of American society, silently breaking down the basic tenets of our democracy while we were all too busy reading tweets.

People know this villain by a variety of different names, such as a “spin” or “twist,” but I like to call it by the scariest name it has: alternative facts.

Nowadays, we see alternative facts taking a multitude of different forms. We see it in the fake news on Twitter that circulates six times faster than the truth does. We saw the seizure of Jim Acosta’s press pass, the lies presented by Kellyanne Conway and our own former president inciting a riot through his refusal to accept legitimate electoral results.

There is a rift in our democracy. That fracture is widening rapidly, disrupting every last issue in American politics from within. The media is under attack, and yet, it is our first line of defense against mass misinformation. National news on both sides of the spectrum is tainted with capitalist ulterior motives. I’d go so far as to claim that an unpaid staff like ours will soon be the only safeguard against the flagrant lies that dominate the national narrative. The kind of local journalism we create at The Spoke is becoming more and more essential to democracy because, in the play for sensational headlines, big media has forgotten that we are a nation built on town halls.

Disrespect for journalism is on the rise globally. Drawing attention to improving industry standards press rights combats this issue. But in order to cover the stories that matter — the stories in small neighborhoods and classrooms that will never see the light of a national headline — we must first fight that disrespect for journalism on a local level. We must fight it in our classrooms and in closed-door meetings with our administrations so that that same disrespect doesn’t corrupt the highest levels of government, as we have seen occur in the last four years.

Names like Hazelwood and Tinker are familiar to all of us from the dense U..S. history textbooks we carried around not so long ago. Those names seemed so unimportant in the scheme of things, except perhaps for when we frantically studied for the next test. 

But understanding the weight of those names allows student journalists to help make small changes in wording in local school publication policies, journalism education policies and state codes, changes that give us the ability to fight for rights to our own work, the ability to maintain our websites and the ability to choose to run stories while still being protected from litigation.

And while I have come to shout from the rooftops for these rights because of my time as a student journalist and Editor-in-Chief of The Spoke, being any kind of student, whether you spend your time in the lab or the art studio, advocating for these changes ensures that your voice, and every other voice in our community, is consistently represented.

So, I urge you to read your student newspaper, to respect the journalists of the future, and to fight for the journalists in your high school classrooms and beyond. Above all, stay informed about the news and seek out unbiased sources in your own community because in 2021, truth isn’t just our defense, it is our salvation.