B.C. student journalists advocate for legislation protecting press freedom at online event

The event was moderated by KPU criminology instructor Mike Larsen

Student journalists from B.C. public schools are advocating for legislation to protect their press freedom. (Kyler Emerson)

Student journalists from B.C. public schools are advocating for legislation to protect their press freedom. (Kyler Emerson)

Two student journalists from a British Columbia public school gave a presentation about student press freedom at the online Press Freedom Frontlines event on Tuesday. 

Spencer Izen and Jessica Kim, editor in chief and managing editor respectively of Eric Hamber Secondary School’s student-led newspaper The Griffin’s Nest, discussed the repeated barriers they faced from local public bodies over the past two years. 

The challenges led to them calling for new legislation in B.C. that would protect press freedom for student journalists in public schools, called the Student Press Freedom Act (SPFA). 

Izen and Kim started their presentation by sharing the censorship incidents they experienced with their school administration, primarily involving themselves in editorial decisions of The Griffin’s Nest

The first incident occurred in December 2020, when the paper published an article about misinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories circulating in school group chats. 

“We wanted to use our newspaper as a platform to say, ‘Don’t follow QAnon, it’s a conspiracy theory,’” Izen said. “And, surprisingly, there was an issue with that.” 

A school administrator felt at the time that describing QAnon as a conspiracy theory could upset parents who potentially believed in it, he said. 

“We didn’t think that was an appropriate way to involve themselves in our content and our journalism. Obviously, QAnon is a conspiracy theory.” 

The school also took issue with an editorial that was critical of the way the school district organized academic planning last year when the editors presented it to illustrators for a customary review. 

“They felt it could stir up trouble… it was too harsh on public figures who had worked hard on the quarter system,” Izen said.  

While that particular matter came to a resolution, Kim said they weren’t satisfied with the process overall. 

“What’s to say this won’t happen again? If it’s happening here, what about other schools?” She said. “So we took the step to look at creating the SPFA for B.C.” 

Last summer, Izen and Kim spent the break organizing the initial phases of the SPFA and reached out to several organizations for endorsement, which they have received. But when they returned to school, Izen said they returned to new challenges as well. 

They were faced with Freedom of Information (FOI) request hurdles like high fees, waiver denials, their authority-to-file was questioned, and some of the paper’s investigations were obstructed through management interventions. They were also denied access to a public meeting and received threats of defamation from school administration via email. 

“Access delayed is access denied,” Izen quoted the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA). 

Kwantlen Polytechnic University criminology instructor and co-chair of the department Mike Larsen moderated the online event. He is also the president of FIPA. 

“I’ve been holding up their (Izen and Kim’s) work in terms of creating the SPFA as a teachable example to students,” Larsen says. “I fully intend to continue to bring their work into my own courses.” 

“Clearly doing accountability journalism on the school system from within the school system has given rise to a lot of barriers and reprisals. It puts people in a precarious position, and there isn’t an accessible piece of policy or law to fall back on,” Larsen says. 

If passed into law, the SPFA will do four things according to Izen: ensure students enjoy the rights and freedom of expression and freedom of the press; protect confidential sources of student journalists; act as a shield for retribution; and provide a forum of access to justice through an appeals process that ensures administrative fairness. 

“I would hope that the change in legislation would be accompanied by a really robust package of training and policy materials that would trickle out to the entire education sector,” Larsen says.  

“This act isn’t just to protect The Griffin’s Nest, it’s to protect students in all B.C. public schools,” Kim said. 

“All of these incidents that occurred over this year have really shown us why exactly we need the legislation we are proposing,” Izen said.