A free press shouldn't stop at the schoolyard

Updated 10:02 AM ET, Wed November 29, 2017

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Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is a professor of media law at the University of Florida, where he runs the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. As the executive director of the Student Press Law Center from 2008 until August 2017, he launched the "New Voices" initiative to enact laws protecting student journalism. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his. This is the latest installment in CNN Opinion's series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)When a California judge entered an unlawful order sealing an entire lawsuit file -- including, bizarrely, even the court order imposing the seal -- outraged journalists took action to defend the public's right to know.

With the help of volunteer legal counsel, reporters Anumita Jain and Armaan Rashid filed a petition in a Contra Costa County court to unseal the case file, which involves a school district's decision to discipline a Danville student over a homemade social-media video said to depict Arabs as terrorists. The school district's decision to remove the student as president of the student government association as punishment for the video -- and then restore him to the position after a public outcry -- dominated two local school board meetings, but without access to the court file, the details of the case (including the contents of the video) remain a puzzle to the community.
Frank LoMonte
There's nothing especially novel about the case -- except that the journalists are themselves in high school, staff members of the Wildcat Tribune newspaper that has provided the community's most thorough and reliable coverage of the lawsuit and the controversy behind it.
"As journalists, Rashid and Jani are attempting to discharge their duties in the highest and best ethical tradition by obtaining direct access to first-hand documentation about a news event," says their motion to unseal the file, which is awaiting a ruling in Contra Costa County Superior Court.
That high school journalists are capable of work rivaling that of professionals, and that they have taken the lead in battling a lack of government transparency, should come as no surprise to anyone. Some of the best journalism in America today is coming out of student-run outlets, as demonstrated by the acclaimed investigative reporting of a team at Kansas' Pittsburg High School, who so painstakingly discredited their newly hired principal's inflated resumé that she was forced to resign.
It may come as more of a surprise to learn that in many ways, this dedication is more the rule than the exception. Student journalists are, increasingly, the information lifeline for their communities. With employment in traditional newsrooms hitting historic lows, down 42% since 1990, the public is more reliant than ever on students to sound the alarm if schools are unsafe or ineffective -- or if there's any story unfolding on their campus that could affect their community. Education news now accounts for just 1.4% of the time and space in mainstream media outlets, according to a 2009 study by the Brookings Institution. It's up to students to fill that information void -- if their schools will let them.
    High schools often nurture the mentality that students have a "civic duty" to say only favorable things about the education they're receiving. "Be true to your school" is a nice enough idea -- but you won't find it in the Constitution. "Citizens will be punished if they question or criticize the government" isn't a sentiment that belongs in any American educational institution. As a lawyer assisting students in censorship cases, I once had a school superintendent in Tennessee tell me that a student's political column was rejected because it "might cause passionate conversations" -- as if passionate conversations about politics were a distraction from learning and not central to it.
    Regrettably, for every student in a well-supported journalism program at a secondary school empowered to use media to right wrongs, there is another student who's been bullied and silenced by image-obsessed school authorities whose highest priority is avoiding controversy, not providing a quality education.
    In Flushing, New York, for example, a principal refused to print an entire edition of the Advocate newspaper in spring 2017 because of a column that captured students' honest assessment of the shortcomings of Flushing High School (in particular, one student's comment that "out of my 8 classes, only 3 of my teachers really care.")
    In Omaha, Nebraska, school authorities retaliated against the Pawprint student news outlet at Millard West High School for a factually accurate article questioning the propriety of some (unnamed) teachers' classroom criticisms of President Trump. First, they pulled the article offline. Then, after relenting in the face of a potential First Amendment lawsuit, they removed a well-credentialed faculty adviser from her job -- just weeks after her students won the best-in-state award for the newspaper she advised.
    In the Chicago suburb of Steinm