Rohan Mustang news team

COMMENTARY: Uncovering the truth: The role Freedom of Information laws play in student journalism

Mar 14, 2023

Editor's note: The New Leaders Association (NLA), formerly the American Society of News Editors, created Sunshine Week 17 years ago to promote open government. NLA and the Society of Professional Journalists host the national celebration of access to public information and what it means to citizens across the country. We asked Rohan Movva, a high school journalist in the Atlanta area, to write about how Sunshine Week and Freedom of Information laws make a difference for student journalists.

You know what they say:  With great power comes great responsibility. But what about those who hold power but aren't exactly deserving of our trust? As President James Madison famously quipped, “The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.” And it's that very sentiment that guides not only myself but student journalists everywhere in their pursuit of transparency and truth. That’s where FOI (Freedom of Information) laws come in, providing a glimmer of hope for the student journalists who dare to hold those in power accountable. 

Even when faced with daunting power structures, student journalists must have the courage to stand up and demand answers, to expose the darkness that can lurk behind closed doors in middle and high schools, as well as colleges, across the country. The truth may be a difficult pill to swallow, but with FOI laws, the power of the press can shine a light on what was once hidden and reveal the untold stories that the public deserves to know.

As we celebrate Sunshine Week and the importance of transparency and accountability in government, it’s important to recognize the role that FOI laws play in enabling student journalists to access information that is essential for their reporting. These laws provide a legal framework for journalists to request and obtain information from government agencies and institutions, including public universities and school districts.

However, student journalists do not have the same level of resources or institutional support as professional journalists, and they oftentimes encounter resistance or even censorship and intimidation from officials who are hesitant to release information.

But student journalists are on the frontlines when it comes to reporting on school safety, cuts in programs, school sports, student mental health and other critical issues. And they bring a unique perspective to covering the experience of the nearly 73 million students in the United States, according to the Student Press Law Center.

When it comes to accessing information through FOI requests, student journalists can face a veritable obstacle course of challenges. These hurdles may include limited resources, institutional barriers, and the constant threat of censorship or intimidation by school and local officials. It’s like running a race with a ball and chain tied to your ankle, blindfolded, with your competitors constantly pushing you down. As a student journalist myself, I know this feeling all too well. Frustrating, to say the least. 

But my experiences as a student journalist and the obstacles I’ve faced have inspired me to take action. That’s why I'm proud to be a national leader for the Student Press Law Center's New Voices initiative for Student Press Freedom. This initiative aims to protect and promote the rights of student journalists to report on matters of public interest without fear of censorship or retaliation. 

Rohan Movva student journalist
Rohan Movva prepares to anchor a special edition video to celebrate Fulton Science Academy news team's fifth anniversary, a team he is now leading and has spent nearly four years with, making him the most senior member.
(Courtesy of Rohan Movva)

Through my work with the New Voices initiative, I've had the pleasure of speaking with hundreds of student journalists across the country and hearing their stories of confronting challenges that seemed daunting, including censorship and intimidation by school administrations, be it at a high school, university, or school district. But with every story, my resolve is strengthened. It's like seeing a ray of light shining through the darkness, giving hope and inspiration to keep fighting for what is right.

That's why initiatives like the Student Press Law Center's New Voices are so important. These initiatives aim to protect and promote the rights of student journalists to report on matters of public interest without fear of censorship or retaliation. By supporting student journalists and advocating for their rights, we can ensure that FOI laws are used to promote transparency and accountability, rather than being used as a tool for secrecy and obstruction.

Unfortunately, student journalists are not immune to the obstruction that can come from administrators who undermine the independence of their work. For example, a student in Georgia was disciplined after tweeting a picture exposing a crowded hallway of maskless students during the first week back to in-person school. And, after being censored from publishing in the school paper, a student journalist in Nebraska published an article in the local paper that generated significant attention about the theft of a Confederate flag that had been displayed on a student's car on school grounds. Yet, administrators sought to censor or manage these stories in ways that would avoid controversy or embarrassment at the expense of the student journalist’s livelihood. These are just two examples of the obstruction that student journalists can face in their pursuit of the truth. 

So, this Sunshine Week, let’s remember the importance of FOI laws in promoting transparency and accountability in government. And let’s also recognize the challenges that student journalists may face in accessing information through these laws, and support initiatives that aim to protect and promote the rights of student journalists to report on matters of public interest. Together, we can ensure that the power of the press is used to hold those in power accountable and promote a more informed and engaged society.

That's why I urge all student journalists to never give up in their pursuit of the truth. The obstacles may be many, and the challenges may seem insurmountable, but with the right support through FOI laws, we can break through those barriers and shine a light on the darkness.

Rohan Movva is State Affairs’ intern writer in Georgia. He is also a national leader for the Student Press Law Center's New Voices initiative for Student Press Freedom. A lifelong native of the Peach State, he’s proudly rooted in Georgia’s rich culture and charm.

Header image: Rohan Movva leads his school news team's production meeting at Fulton Science Academy in Alpharetta, Georgia. (Courtesy of Rohan Movva)