The Weight of Young Journalists’ Voices

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The Weight of Young Journalists’ Voices

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Senate Bill could legalize protection of free student press


The Washington State Legislature is considering an initiative to protect student press rights that already has swept across 13 states. Debbie Denbrook

Senate Bill (SB) 5064 seeks to define and clarify free speech protections for student press in public high schools and institutions of higher education; exclude mandatory prior review on any media produced by students; prohibit the discipline or termination of student media advisors for failure to suppress legally protected speech in student-produced and school-sponsored media; and protect schools and school officials from civil or criminal liability resulting from content in student-produced and school-sponsored media.

“Opportunities to practice journalism in school provide an incredible learning experience for young people to learn more about the issues that are important to them and increase the awareness of their peers,” said state Sen. Joe Fain, who introduced SB 5064 last year.

“Now more than ever some online outlets intentionally blur the lines between real reporting and fake news. We must ensure students have necessary backing to independently and responsibly practice their craft,” Fain said.

The struggle for legislation protecting student press rights began in 1988 when a high school principal censored two articles from a student newspaper at Hazelwood East High School in Missouri. The student journalists sued, and the case played out in several courtrooms, ending when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that the principal did not violate the students’ First Amendment rights by censoring the two articles.

The high court decision left open the question as to whether this ruling applied to public colleges, and in a 2005 an Illinois circuit court argued that “Hazelwood” did apply to subsidized student media at a state university.

That 2005 decision prompted then Wash. State Rep. Dave Upthegrove to introduce legislation to protect First Amendment rights of student editors and advisers at both the high school and college levels in the state, but the bill died in committee in 2007 and again the next year.

Similar bills were introduced in other state legislatures, and in 2015, the North Dakota State Legislature unanimously passed a bill to protect free-speech rights of journalism students in public schools and colleges. This success gave birth to the New Voices USA movement, a network of state-by-state campaigns to pass anti-censorship legislation to protect student journalists. Thirteen states already have passed protective legislation, with many more, such as Washington, introducing or renewing such bills.

“SB 5064 does not increase press rights for public colleges; it simply encodes them in state law,” said Jeb Wyman, who until 2008 was the faculty adviser to The City Collegian, the former student newspaper for Seattle Central Community. Wyman resigned in protest in 2008 over the school administration’s attempts to pressure the student editors over content decisions. The administration’s reation to Wyman’s resignation was to cut off funding, lock the staff out of their own newspaper office and remove all journalism classes from the school’s course offerings.

“The great practical value of SB 5064 for student journalists is that it explicitly encodes these press rights as state law,” Wyman said. “When a crisis happens, the language would be there to define what an administration can’t do when they don’t like the work student journalists are doing.”

Michael Parks has been a tenured instructor and adviser to The Pioneer since 1989, and has seen a variety of college administrators come and go in nearly 30 years.

“I’ve been fortunate that no administrator here, from the chancellor on down, has ever tried influencing the content of The Pioneer, and in fact most have been quite supportive of student press rights,” Parks said, who believes the primary resistance to the bill has come from parents and high school administrators.

Parks cited a case several years ago at Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup in which the school district was sued for invasion of privacy based on a story published in the student newspaper, the Jagwire.

“The district won the battle, but the students lost the war because soon after ‘Hazelwood’ was evoked and prior review was forced upon the student newspaper,” he said.

Parks believes the Emerald Ridge lawsuit is exactly what parents (and principals) fear. “They could be worried the kids don’t have enough experience and discretion yet, and might do something to embarrass or legally harm themselves or the school.”

However, Parks said that “trauma is a great teacher,” and allowing students to make mistakes and experience the consequences of their actions through public rebuke is “a quick and effective way to figure out what the boundaries are.”

Teresa Josten, the adviser for The Post, the student newspaper at the Puyallup campus, expressed similar sentiments as Parks and Wyman: the codifying of student press rights in law would help other colleges and high schools who may not have such codes, she said.

“In the last few years I’ve heard plenty of stories of faculty advisers who have been reprimanded, maybe not always directly, but via reductions in responsibilities, making the workplace less of a happy place to be, the elimination of funding, and other methods,” Josten said, adding that fear of administrative punishment can lead to advisers censoring themselves, and not guiding students as well as they could be.

Josten is a part-time teacher at the Puyallup campus and does not have the protection of tenure.

“Just because my position is temporary doesn’t mean I won’t advise students to seek good stories and report on them responsibly,” Josten said. “When practicing the craft, it is easy for young writers to not understand the full scope of their writing, but I would say having the freedom to learn outweighs potential mistakes.”

Fain’s bill last year received overwhelming support in the state Senate but stalled in a House committee. It was resumed in this year’s legislative session and passed 43-5 by the Rules Committee and sent on to the Judiciary Committee, which took public hearing on Feb. 14.

On Feb. 22, the House Judiciary Committee added an amendment to the bill and then voted to pass it out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation. The 7-6 vote was down party lines, with the seven Democrat members moving the legislation forward.

The amendment, introduced by Rep. Christine Kilduff (D-28th District, University Place), exempts protections for certain student expression. For example, K-12 school administrators may control such speech that violates school district policy or procedure related to harassment, intimidation, bullying or discrimination or incites students so as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on the school premises or acts in violation of lawful school district policy or procedure.

Amended language for higher education student publications was set “at a higher bar,” Kilduff said, and related mainly to inciting to a clear and present danger and violating school district policy or procedure.

Two Republican speakers said the amendment “guts the intent of the bill” and, as concerns higher educational student publications, might render the bill unconstitutional.

It is unclear if the bill now goes to the floor for a vote of the full House, or if it goes to yet another committee.

The Legislative session is scheduled to end March 8.

If you would like to track the progress of the bill, go to: