Pushing an unpopular cause

Law school alumnus spends his days defending student journalists’ right to free speech

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Pushing an unpopular cause

Frank LoMonte

Photo by: SPECIAL

Journalists get little public support, says Frank LoMonte, and student journalists get even less.

“A free student press doesn’t have much public support,” he says.

Executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., LoMonte (JD ’00) tackles the first amendment issues at colleges and universities as well as K-12 schools. The center provides legal assistance for student journalists across the nation.

“Educators often have little regard for the constitutional rights of students, particularly freedom of speech,” he says. Cases in the courts now include civil speech codes on campuses, what students can and can’t say on social networking sites, sunshine laws involving public records and privacy issues.

“Censorship comes from people not secure in their authority,” he says, adding that school officials will try to punish students for saying or writing anything that might affect the orderly operation of the school.

“Schools generally are not very good at punishing. Sometimes good teachers are punished for something students did.”

The courts must protect young whistleblowers and investigative reporters, just as they would professional journalists, LoMonte says. Only two states—Arkansas and Kansas—have progressive laws protecting the student press, he noted.

As part of his job, LoMonte travels often around the country to serve as an “an advocate for a somewhat unpopular cause.”

“I try to promote student engagement in civic life and help students improve their communities, starting with their schools,” he says. “There are lots of opportunities for student journalists. For example, we’re now training them to cover school boards.

From a national perspective, LoMonte says he’s optimistic about the college press, many of which are transitioning from print to online publications.

“The mood in college newsrooms is electrifying because there is a lot of experimentation,” he says. “Innovation comes from challenging assumptions. If you empower students, they usually do amazing things.

Student investigators are breaking big national stories. UGA, for example, has shown leadership in using open records law.” Student journalists can have an enormous effect on public service journalism—serving as a watchdog for their community, he says.

“There are too many shenanigans of state and local government that are grossly under covered by the press and that need watching.”

The Student Press Law Center is largely staffed by student interns from across the country. The students produce a newsletter as they learn about press law, journalism and nonprofit operations. The center also maintains a phone line and online contact for students who have media law concerns. LoMonte also takes the students on “geek outings,” field trips to places like National Public Radio and the Supreme Court.

“It’s crazy fun,” he says. “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. It’s incredibly rewarding working for people who are appreciative. Even if you don’t win a case, you still empower students and earn moral victories.”

—John W. English, a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia, is a frequent contributor to GM.