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Prior to researching media law, a person might think all Americans are guaranteed absolute freedom to of speech, assembly, petition, religion and of course–press. However, these constitutional freedoms are accompanied by many nuances that are learned only through the meticulous study of court cases throughout history.

People are afforded different press freedoms under the First Amendment depending on who they are. Professional journalists work for pay and enjoy legal protection of rights like state shield laws which allows for source protection in court. Public high school students writing for a school-sponsored publication enjoyed significant freedom of the press, until these rights were tabled by Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988. This Supreme Court decision gave censorship rights to public school administrators. A very important group is left wondering where they stand–student journalists at universities. These writers are abandoned in a limbo of First Amendment rights.

Many rights of college journalists are undetermined until they become tested in court and even then-they can vary from state to state. There are, however, some cases to consider but until the situation is tested in a specific state, student journalists are unsure of their rights. Many state laws are vague in defining who is considered a journalist and enjoys protections such as shield laws and immunity from prison in covering events. Bloggers and freelance writers constantly struggle against state shield laws for inclusion and college journalists are sometimes also excluded from protection. North Carolina’s shield law protects “any person, company or entity, or the employees, independent contractors, or agents of that person, company or entity, engaged in the business of gathering, compiling, writing, editing, photographing, recording, or processing information for disseminations via any news medium (N.C. Gen. State 8-53.11). NC’s shield law is one of the more inclusive in the nation. On a federal level, North Carolina is in the Fourth Circuit which has yet to determine who is covered under federal shield law (Digital Media Law Project 2008). The only way to clarify specifics of who and what is covered under certain First Amendment is through test cases. A college student at San Francisco State University used a shield law in 2009 as a defense to prevent police from demanding his photos from a murder he witnessed when reporting. The judge agreed in his usage of this defense (Jamison 2010). These are the kinds of cases which determine the future of student journalists’ rights.

Problems arise when trying to obtain press credentials because often, college reporters are not considered “professional media.” Student journalists from Boston College were denied press passes in 2004 to avoid being arrested when covering rallies and protests. (Student Press Law Center 2004). Ryan Heffernan, editor of Boston College’s paper, cited the denial as ridiculous and said it left members of the college press vulnerable. (SPLC 2004).

In today’s journalistic climate, college journalists are competing against professional journalists. The Daily Tar Heel submits articles to the NC Press Association awards which pits student articles against those of professional reporters. The imbalance of treatment between these two groups of people is in direct contrast to their sometimes equal footing in the field. A writer for the Daily Tar Heel who is arrested covering Moral Monday would face a much larger obstacle in writing the story than a professional reporter would–giving the student reporter a disadvantage in the competition. This competition is important because it Student reporters are subjected to the same public critique of their work as professional reporters. In the past year, two desk editors for the Daily Tar Heel have been dragged through the coals by readers for their coverage on crimes in Chapel Hill committed by Durham residents and circumstances surrounding last year’s death of UNC freshman David Shannon. These student writers were publicly shamed and berated by readers and endured personal problems as a result. Of course students pursuing careers in journalism should be aware of the public criticism that accompanies such a path. If student journalists are held to the same standards as professional journalists and face the same consequences–shouldn’t they be afforded the same protections?

A student who is arrested when covering a rally for their campus newspaper is left to explain their criminal history to any future employer. A student reporter who braved the front lines to get the best coverage should be celebrated, but practices such as this ultimately hinder them. It is inevitable that student reporters make mistakes. This is to be expected, as students are inherently learning. Those who want to have a competitive advantage start reporting before they complete their training in the field (receive a degree). Students and faculty alike bemoan the tendency of UNC’s campus newspaper The Daily Tar Heel to misquote sources. Readers often associate college journalism with amateurism. An ironic article by the Onion was recently published titled “Student Reporter Hits it Out of the Park with 5 Accurate Sentences.” However for every glaring mistake published in a college newspaper, there is an article with exceptional writing, professional coverage and a fresh perspective.

–Corinne Jurney

“Confidentiality.” Student Press Law Cetner XXVI.1 (n.d.): 28. Web.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. U.S. Supreme Court. 13 Jan. 1988.

Jamison, Peter. “S.F. State Student Who Invoked Shield Law Reveals Murder Scene Photo in National Contest.” SF Weekly. N.p., 03 Mar. 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

“North Carolina Protections for Sources and Source Material.” Digital Media Project. Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 23 Apr. 2008. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

North Carolina General Assembly Statute 8-53.11.

“Student Reporter Hits It Out Of The Park With 5 Accurate Sentences | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.” Student Reporter Hits It Out Of The Park With 5 Accurate Sentences | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source. The Onion, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

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