Active Voice Campaign Combats Female Censorship

By Elaina Koros

When Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, toured high schools with American free speech activist Mary Beth Tinker in spring 2014, he saw that girls regularly constituted a majority of both reporters and editors in student newsrooms. Returning to the SPLC, which provides information and legal resources to students whose free speech has been violated, he noticed that almost every violation reported at the high school level at the time targeted a female writer and editor. Girls were discouraged or prohibited from covering issues including sexual identity, depression, racism, sexual assault and the decriminalization of marijuana.

“Here were these strong, opinionated young women who were being shut down by their schools and told to keep their opinions to themselves,” LoMonte said of the female reporters. “It was powerful to realize that disproportionately young women were the ones being silenced and to think about what that must do to them as they go on and develop as adults.”

LoMonte said that the SPLC receives around 300 high school censorship cases each year and that two-thirds of them involve female students. While this frequency of female censorship may be a result of the disproportionately high amount of girls in high school journalism, LoMonte thinks other factors are also at play.

“I do think that there is a good possibility that has never been quantified by research that young women are going to be censored more because people in school authority think that they’ll sit back and take it,” he said. “It’s also undeniably true that young women are going to be more inclined to tackle the issues that are magnets for censorship. Young women are more likely to push the hot buttons that cause schools to censor.”

To further support young female journalists, the SPLC announced Active Voice, a pro-voice campaign and mentorship program for girls, in December 2014. Through Active Voice, the SPLC wants to create an online home for young journalists seeking information and advice.

“Active Voice is designed to equip young women to face the challenges of speaking up including institutional censorship, the threats of and actual litigation...and also online threats,” media lawyer and SPLC board member Nabiha Syed said during the announcement. “The goal of Active Voice is to be both a source of instruction and inspiration for these young women.”

LoMonte hopes that in addition to providing informational resources regarding First Amendment rights, Active Voice can connect young female journalists facing censorship issues with mentors, who can guide and support them.

“What success looks like is a thriving online community with lots of participants across a diverse spectrum of ages and professions, and what success looks like is movements going on at the state level to pass better laws and policies that protect the rights of journalists. If we achieve those two things, that’s a win,” he said. “If we get people exchanging ideas among themselves and taking that next step and reaching out to policymakers and identifying a problem and identifying a fix, that’s a win.”

Active Voice is still in its developmental stages but has attracted high profile mentorship committee members including Geneva Overholser, the former ombudsman of The Washington Post, Priscilla Painton, the executive editor of nonfiction at Simon & Schuster, and Linda Kramer Jenning, the Washington editor for Glamour magazine. Ultimately, LoMonte hopes that Active Voice can reduce the systemic and self-initiated censorship that female journalists face.

“We know that there are young women who have been discouraged and dissuaded by the adversity that their schools have imposed, and that shouldn’t be happening. We shouldn’t be using school authority to put a ceiling on people’s dreams,” he said. “[But] a big part of building up this support network is also to encourage students not to censor themselves. They often find they can get away with a surprising amount if they just try.”

If you are interested in learning more about Active Voice, please email activevoice@splc.org.

Author’s note: Elaina is working part-time as a reporter for the SPLC this semester.