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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

New legislation could increase independence for student journalists

A bipartisan effort to address the clarity of First Amendment rights for high school and collegiate journalism students may soon be put to a vote in Olympia.

Senate Bill 6233 would prevent administrators at high schools and colleges in the Washington from censoring material in student publications prior to print, and prevent college administrators from reviewing publications prior to print. It also prevents schools from disciplining student editors or faculty advisors based on the content of the publication. This protection would not extend to libel, slander, invasion of privacy, substantially disruptive or unlawful material.

Vince DeMiero, former president of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said  he is advocating for the bill because it will provide clarity for the roles student journalists, school administrators and school-sponsored media in an ever-changing world of journalism.

On Jan. 21, DeMiero and Mike Hiestand, an attorney representing the Student Press Law Center, both testified before the Washington Senate in support for the law.

DeMiero explained the law would provide protection to advisors and educators, and implies protection to taxpayers from “potentially frivolous lawsuits” over published student material.

The bill prevents all school officials from being held responsible for student publication content, as long as those school officials have not edited the content in question. Instead, the responsibility falls on the student writers and editors.

The bill would reverse a the state supreme court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed administrators to censor student publication content if they could demonstrate a reasonable educational justification, according to the Student Press Law Center.

It also addresses the 2005 Seventh Circuit Court ruling in Hosty v. Carter, which drew from the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruling to establish the rights of administrators at colleges and universities to censor content in school-sponsored publications.

Senate Majority Floor Leader, Republican Sen. Joe Fain introduced the bill. Seven other legislators, five democrats and two republicans, are co-sponsoring it.

“This is more of a curricular issue than a free speech issue. The school district is the publisher and therefore should have some control over what is published, just like a publisher does with their editors and reporters,” said Jerry Bender, Association of Washington School Principals governmental relations director, speaking in opposition of the bill at the Jan. 21 hearing.

Bender is a former principal and said he reviewed the student paper at his school prior to publication, but never had cause to censor any content, he said.

Bender argued that principals have to be able to prevent problems associated with reaction to student publication content. “If I’m going to be in a situation where the plane crashes, I want to be there when it takes off, too,” he said.

DeMiero disagreed with Bender’s argument that school districts function as the publishers of student newspapers and should therefore have the right to censor content.

“The district isn’t the publisher in any case where it’s a student publication,” DeMiero said. “It’s never been legally upheld that the district is the publisher.”

DeMiero gave the analogy of using a computer at a public library to research and write a book. Writing and printing that book at the library doesn’t give the library the rights of a publisher, DeMiero said.

The rights of journalism students would default to the rights established in Tinker v. Des Moines. That case, which involved students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war, established that school administrators cannot infringe upon protected free speech on campus.

A similar bill was introduced in 2007 by Washington house democrats led by Rep. Dave Upthegrove D-Des Moines, but it was never brought to a vote.

The current bill will be voted on by the Senate Education Committee, and if passed would then be sent to the rules committee, which would decide whether the the bill would go to the Senate floor for a vote.
At Western, student publications are governed by the Student Publications Council under guidelines set forth in the Student Publications Charter. It includes stipulations that “the press must be free of all forms of external interference designed to regulate its content,” and that it is the “responsibility of the press to report the news with accuracy, truthfulness and fairness, and to provide an outlet for campus opinion and creative effort,” according to the charter.

READ MORE: Journalism students respond to proposed bill

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