Advice to Students: trust yourself, and your voice

Mariah Valles, Online Editor

It’s hard to believe that it’s all over. After advocating for students’ freedom of the press rights in Washington state for three years, I am happy to say that the New Voices bill became law on March 21.

I joke now and ask myself, “What will I do with my free time?” but the truth of the matter is that I am not stopping here. This experience has molded me into the young journalist I am, and I plan to share my experience with other students from different states who are in the process of passing similar laws. This is definitely a period in my life that I will never forget, and I look forward to sharing it with my students one day when I become a journalism teacher.

Being a vocal student during the process has taught me many valuable lessons:

First, student voices matter. Yes, student voices really do matter. I know it may seem cliche, but it’s true. Standing up for what I believe in and sharing my stories and experiences did make a difference.

I will never forget testifying at the state capital during my second year in high school with fellow journalism members by my side, answering questions from lawmakers and seeing the looks on their faces when they realized how passionate we were (and still are). That gut feeling is one I still don’t know how to explain.

Second, trust yourself. Throughout the process, I was asked a lot of really tough “What if” questions. Some examples include: “What would you do if a staff member wanted to publish …?” and “What happens if a parent gets angry?” “Why do you believe you have more power than administrators?” and so many more.

When I was asked these tough questions, I would always answer with the following: “We follow an editorial policy. If it doesn’t follow that policy, we will not write it,” or “I will have to contact the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) on that matter and can give you an answer after I contact them,” or my personal favorite, “Whether I am a student journalist or professional journalist, I am still a journalist and deserve to be protected from censorship.”

Trust your knowledge and understand that you know what is right from wrong. If you are genuinely curious, ask. The best journalists are constantly asking questions no matter how much experience they have under their wings.

Third, trust the process. Now I’m not going to lie, when I heard that the bill was tabled at one point, I got discouraged. My adviser suggested that I keep reaching out to representatives and talking to people about the matter. I tried to do everything in my power to make sure that this bill did not die. It meant too much to me to just give up. The next legislative session, I came out stronger than before, with even more knowledge and fierceness than before.

It turns out that being tabled only allowed more time for students, advisers and advocates to spread their voices throughout the state. I learned to be patient, and that being patient would bring great things.

Although I have gotten a large amount of press which is humbling, that is not why I testified. Oftentimes I am asked why I care so much about student press rights because my school, Auburn High School did not enforce a prior review policy. I believe I was able to grow into the strong young journalist I am today due to not working under a censored environment. I’m thankful to have had an adviser who was an advocate of free speech and a principal who stood behind true and real journalism.

I testified on behalf of student journalists in Washington state of the past, present and future who deserve to be protected. I testified on behalf of the students who I will one day teach, and have the pleasure of explaining to them just how important their First Amendment rights are.

I often think about the day when I will stand in front of my student journalism staff and explain the fight that so many people in Washington state, including journalism educator Thomas Kaup and retired journalism teacher and longtime free press advocate Fern Valentine, fought endlessly until they won in 2018.

Who knows where we as a society will be by the time I am teaching, but I know now that this bill is extremely important. Whether you agree with the administration or not, the media is under constant attack. Today’s student journalists are tomorrow’s professional journalists and I know for a fact that professional journalists do not allow higher-ups to censor them. The profession doesn’t stand for it.

It’s bittersweet to know that it’s all over, but I am eager to help other states pass similar laws, making this a universal reality in America.