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Jessica Kim and Spencer Izen with The Griffins’ Nest newspapers, at Vanpress Printers in Burnaby, B.C., on May 5. The Eric Hamber Secondary School students drafted the Student Press Freedom Act.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

A student newspaper at Eric Hamber Secondary School was ready last year to publish a new issue featuring an editorial that criticized the lack of consultation in the Vancouver School Board’s decision-making processes.

“It is often unclear when, if, and how the VSB uses student and teacher input to create policy. There needs to be greater transparency on the direct correlation between student and teacher voice and Board action,” reads the May, 2021 editorial of The Griffins’ Nest.

But when the Nest’s editor-in-chief Spencer Izen swung by an Eric Hamber administrator’s office, informing him by custom that the preprint copy was ready to review, the teen was asked if the paper contained anything controversial and was told the issue needed the principal’s “blessing.” The administrator had apparently been notified to the issue after the VSB forwarded Mr. Izen’s request for comment to Eric Hamber.

Mr. Izen, an enthusiast of constitutional and media law, regarded the exchange as a threat to his freedom of expression as defined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He and Jessica Kim, the paper’s managing editor, hopped on the SkyTrain after school that day and headed to the office of the BC Civil Liberties Association. Their trip touched off a year of advocacy aimed at offering student journalists the same protections afforded to other journalists, culminating in a draft student press-freedom bill that is the first of its kind in Canada.

“Youth in our society don’t have many rights, they’re infantilized,” said BCCLA policy director Meghan McDermott, who has been demanding that Eric Hamber and the VSB recognize the students’ rights.

In the meantime, the Nest has continued to rankle the VSB with critical coverage. When Mr. Izen, 18, became the editor-in-chief of the Nest in September, 2020, he wanted to take the publication in a tougher direction.

“I began to realize that … there’s a lot more critical coverage we could be doing. And one of the biggest principles in journalism is just simply asking questions until you get an answer,” he said.

The Nest’s coverage in recent months includes reporting on parents’ concerns about VSB’s decision to end a full-time program aimed at gifted elementary students next year, which helped prompt the board to walk back its plan; and an open letter this month deriding the board’s proposed new rules around extracurricular activities and social-media guidelines.

But the censorship complaints started with an editorial about misinformation in December, 2020. According to Mr. Izen, school administrators expressed concerns when the piece called QAnon false and labelled it a conspiracy theory.

Eric Hamber principal Marea P. Jensen didn’t respond to The Globe and Mail’s requests for comment about the Nest, instead referring questions to the VSB. The board said in an unattributed e-mailed statement that neither the school nor district have censored any articles written by The Griffins’ Nest and that the articles in question were published.

The VSB said it forwarded the students’ media request to school administrators because it is the standard practice with all inquiries. School administrators did have questions and concerns about the content of the May, 2021, article and wanted time to properly review it, the VSB stated.

The VSB statement said the Nest is is an extracurricular student club and, as such, there needs to be a teacher sponsor to maintain oversight, provide input on operations and affairs, and ensure the school and district’s code of conduct is followed.

“The District agrees that students have the right and freedom to express themselves in schools, as outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedom,” the statement reads.

The newspaper has also challenged new changes to the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which require a $10 fee to submit a freedom of information (FOI) request. The Nest’s journalists asked the district to waive the fees but were rejected; the VSB said a fee was applied because of the significant staff resources it would take to produce records for the request. The students took the issue to Twitter in April, arguing students should be able to access FOI process free of charge.

They gained support from some members of the public, receiving nearly $2,000 in donations to support their journalism. Additionally, they were mentioned in the B.C. Legislature in April, when Liberal MLA Bruce Banman asked the provincial government to consider including student media in the exemption of the fee.

But the journalists at the Nest believe their rights can only be protected if they are spelled out in law – a belief underlined when they were denied entry to a school-board public-dialogue session a few weeks ago. The VSB said it wanted to create a safe space for all participants to share their thoughts and decided not to allow any media outlet to attend the events.

In pursuit of legal protection, the students have spent about eight months researching, writing and taking counsel from legal-aid lawyers, advocates and journalists to craft a four-page draft of the Student Press Freedom Act for B.C. The bill, which has yet to have a provincial politician introduce it in the legislature, aims to end unjust censorship of student media, ensure their confidential sources are protected and provide them with a forum to access justice.

The act has been endorsed by several organizations and student media, including the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the U.S.-based Student Press Law Center.

To advance their cause, Mr. Izen and Ms. Kim, 18, met with Attorney-General David Eby last month.

“My ministry believes in the importance of a free and robust fourth estate, including at the high school level,” Mr. Eby said in a statement without committing to passing the bill.

The Attorney-General’s office is also co-ordinating a meeting between the students at the Nest and the province’s Ombudsperson to discuss the challenges student journalists across B.C. face and how they can work together to address them.

Ms. Kim said the students are aware that there’s “power imbalance” between them and the school district and the Eric Hamber administration. Their critical articles of the board have also worried some of their parents, who fear it could jeopardize these students’ future.

But the teens weren’t intimidated and aren’t planning to back down: Mr. Izen, for example, said he’s turned down his offer to attend Harvard University next year in order to continue advocating for the passage of the proposed bill he helped craft.

“There’s a lot of work to do in Canada,” he said.

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