The Forum

The Forum Turns 50: Reflections on Student Journalism

By Vienna I. Austin

October 25, 2023

Mary Beth and John Tinker, student protestors famous for their role in the major Supreme Court case on student speech, Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District.

The Forum’s Anniversary

Fifty years have passed since, on October 3, 1973, The Forum began publishing. Since then, Florissant Valley's student newspaper has spent the years engaging with and informing the campus' student population. Founded roughly 11 years after the founding of the college itself, it succeeded the North Star newspaper, a district-wide student publication that debuted a mere year after the formation of STLCC, or, as it was called at the time, the Junior College District of St. Louis.

Since its inception by a collection of Florissant Valley students, The Forum has seen our campus through numerous changes and struggles in the world around us and for itself: wars, restrictions on the press, turbulent political eras, and, perhaps the most notable battle of our generation so far, the COVID-19 pandemic. However, The Forum is certainly not alone in its turbulent and varied history. It joins thousands of other, both collegiate and high school, student publications that have faced the exact same; student newspapers across the country have faced many conflicts and challenges, for better and worse, throughout the decades. Both internal and external pressures are constantly driving the locomotion of collegiate journalism history, much of such history being directly relevant to not only The Forum itself but journalistic realities that shape how media operates in the world more broadly.

Student Press, Censorship, and the Law

Perhaps the most prominent and pervasive external influence on the function of the student press is the ever-changing legal landscape that determines both the challenges and protections given to such journalistic organizations. The realm of the First Amendment rights of students, both secondary and post-secondary, has, among other things, been a paramount issue in the constant judicial warfare of the United States, particularly for the Supreme Court. 

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, or Tinker v. Des Moines for short, decided in 1969, was a landmark student free speech case that remains preeminent and widely cited in this domain over fifty years later. The story of the case begins with a group of five students: John, Mary Beth, Hope, and Paul Tinker, the titular Tinker siblings, and their friend Christopher Eckhardt. The students, ranging in age from eight to sixteen, planned to wear black anti-war armbands to school in protest of the ongoing Vietnam War. However, the principals of the school district, learning of this plan beforehand, devised a policy to ban armbands and suspend students who disobeyed the new order. Despite this, the five continued with their plan, resulting in the suspension of Mary Beth Tinker, John Tinker, and Christopher Eckhardt. In response to their suspensions, the parents of the children sued the district, citing infringement upon the First Amendment rights of their students. The parents, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, argued their case in their U.S. District Court, which agreed with the school's decision. Their appeal to this, however, was met with yet another affirmation of the policy of the Des Moines Independent School District. Eventually, the ACLU and the Tinker family, joined by the family of Christopher Eckhardt, appealed to the Supreme Court directly, which agreed to hear the case. Finally, on February 24, 1969, the Supreme Court rejected the rulings of the lower courts, ruling 7-2 that the First Amendment protected the symbolic speech of the children and that their suspensions were unconstitutional. In the opinion, authored by Justice Abe Fortas, what is known as the "Tinker Test" was established. The test stated that to justify interference with student speech, a school must prove that such speech would "materially and substantially interfere" with the school's educational function. As such, a new precedent was set: student speech was widely protected, with the exception of anything seen as disruptive.

Following this decision, the Supreme Court would decide another student speech case a mere four years later; this time, much closer both geographically and topically to STLCC's The Forum. Papish v. Board of Curators of University of Missouri, decided in 1973, focused on four Mizzou graduate students, namely 32-year-old Barbara Susan Papish, who were arrested on February 19, 1969, for "possessing and attempting to sell obscene literature." The supposed obscene literature in question was a local underground newspaper called the Columbia Free Press, prominently featured on the front page of which was a political cartoon of Lady Liberty and the Goddess of Justice being raped by a crowd of policemen. Following this incident, Papish was put on disciplinary probation by the school and eventually expelled. In response, Papish sued, unsuccessfully at first, arguing that her First Amendment rights had been violated. The district court ruled against Papish and upheld the school's punishment, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed that decision. When the Supreme Court decided the case, however, these previous rulings were overturned in a 6-3 ruling in favor of Papish. Citing Tinker v. Des Moines, the court argued that institutions of higher education could not punish students for offensive content, stating that mere propagation of ideas could not be said to fail the Tinker Test, could not itself be considered to disrupt education, rejecting the university's argument. While lesser known than Tinker, this case was instrumental in shaping the landscape of collegiate journalism. Tinker's restrictions no longer just applied to the high school realm.

However, this streak of Supreme Court victories for student journalists would not last forever. A mere few miles from STLCC Florissant Valley, in 1988, the Supreme Court would rule on Hazelwood School District et al. v. Kuhlmeier et al., or simply Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The nearby Hazelwood East High School, a high school of the Hazelwood School District, which borders the Ferguson-Florissant School District that the Florissant Valley campus resides within, was sued in 1984 by members of the school newspaper's student staff. The paper, called The Spectrum, was a project maintained by the school's Journalism II class and was published and funded by the school itself. Every few weeks, the faculty advisor of the journalism class would submit a copy of the newspaper, as written by the students, to the principal for approval; once approved, the paper would be printed, delivered, and distributed to the students and local community. This process broadly occurred without issue. One day, however, when the May 13 edition of The Spectrum was delivered to the students, the authors of the newspaper noticed that two pages had been removed. The two pages had contained two articles on highly controversial issues: teen pregnancy and divorce. Additionally, each article included anonymized interviews with students who were impacted by the respective issues of the stories. It turned out that, upon receiving the six-page newspaper proof for publication, the principal, fearing that students featured in the contentious articles would be identified and that the content would be inappropriate for the school, decided to remove them. The resulting lawsuit landed in the Supreme Court, after disagreeing rulings in the district and appellate courts. Eventually, on January 13, roughly four years after the suit was first filed, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Hazelwood School District by a vote of 5-3, significantly restricting student journalism across the country in a landmark decision. The court argued in the majority opinion authored by Justice Byron White that as an educational body that manages the newspaper for students, the school reserved the right to set standards for and control content as they saw fit for the school environment.

Since the Hazelwood ruling, 17 states have adopted so-called New Voices laws as of October 25, 2023, following West Virginia's passage of the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act in March 2023. Despite many of Missouri's bordering states, red and blue alike, adopting such laws, Missouri is one of the 33 states with no post-Hazelwood student press protection law. Clearly, and especially in the home state of STLCC and The Forum, the legal conflicts fought over the very nature and existence of student journalism continue to rage on.

COVID-19 and Independent Journalism

However, the law certainly is not the only threat to independent press, student journalism, and ultimately The Forum. Local, independent news media has been in decline for decades, impacting not only students and college newspapers but communities across the United States. According to a Brookings Institution analysis titled "Local journalism in crisis: Why America must revive its local newsrooms," by Boston Free Press reporter Clara Hendrickson, the total number of local newspapers has been declining nationwide for decades. According to Hendrickson, "Over 65 million Americans live in counties with only one local newspaper or none at all," living in so-called news deserts. Coinciding with these closures, and contributing to the crisis in local journalism, the analysis shows a drastic decrease in U.S. newspaper advertising revenue, a decrease that online revenue has failed to compensate for. Between 2008 and 2018, the newspaper industry experienced a 68% decrease in advertising revenue, following a peak back in 2000. Furthermore, Hendrickson cites a sort of atrophy of the capabilities of local newspapers, an issue inextricably connected with low revenue, leading to increasing public disinterest in such grassroots media. Many local newspapers simply can no longer have the resources to maintain their staff or community presence. In short, less money means less coverage, less coverage means less public interest, and less public interest means less money.

The decline of American newspaper journalism, though ongoing for years, has undoubtedly accelerated in the midst of COVID-19. A July 2020 Open Society Foundations explainer updates previous coverage of local news decline at the height of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the piece, titled "How COVID-19 Threatens Independent Journalism," newspapers actually experienced great online success in the early COVID-era; online readership shot up during this duration, with the New York Times, cited as an example in the article, reporting a 10% increase in online subscribers and a massive boost to the site's online traffic. Despite this, as Clara Hendrickson previously wrote in 2019, increased online revenue streams don't even come close to offsetting losses. Simultaneously with the online growth, newspapers saw a massive slump in ad revenue and, like many companies in the COVID-era, resorted to mass layoffs. The New York Times reported a 55% decrease in advertisement money in its second quarter and fired 36,000 employees in April 2020. Even worse, across the world, local newspapers closed at an alarming rate, exacerbating the problem of news deserts.

The St. Louis region is lucky in regards to its diverse media environment. In addition to the newspapers of local schools, including The Forum and its sister publications at STLCC, The Montage and The Scene, St. Louis is home to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an award-winning paper founded by Joseph Pulitzer of the Pulitzer Prize. Though by far, the Post-Dispatch dominates the St. Louis media landscape, the area also circulates to other minor newspapers such as the Community News and the Riverfront Times. 

This does not mean, however, that the St. Louis region or its newspapers have not struggled. Major newspapers have closed in the region throughout the years, with those remaining often left struggling. The Forum, for instance, has struggled immensely under COVID-19. Through the pandemic, The Forum lost much of its staff, changed faculty advisors, and ceased publication for various periods of time. The current endeavors to revive Florissant Valley's newspaper have been given very little to work with; despite this, The Forum continues to push forward.

The Forum and its Future

This article is slated to be published in the first edition of The Forum this semester; it will be printed in the first proper paper copy in years and will be the headline on the Forum's new website. Despite the challenges, despite much of the foundations of this newspaper having to be reworked from scratch, publication continues. There are a few reasons why this is possible. The first is institutional: though The Forum has had advertisements in the past, it is not dependent on them; the publication has the backing and funding of STLCC. The second, however, is very human: the Forum is supported by staff and volunteers who dedicate hours of their lives and energy to fuel it, to contribute to informing and entertaining their fellow students. For this, we are very fortunate and have been for 50 years.