Two steps forward, three steps back?

KANSAS — From the schoolhouse to the statehouse, the debate continues over how much freedom legislators will grant to the student press. This week, state senators are holding a hearing on a bill that aims to trim the rights restored to the student press in 1992 after the Supreme Court granted discretionary power to school administrators with its 1988 Hazelwood ruling.

High school business teacher Larry Vogt appeared before the Senate Education Committee to express his outrage over an issue of his school’s student newspaper containing senior wills. He complained to the newspaper’s faculty adviser, who he said told him, “It is illegal for me to censor student publications.” Now some state senators want to change that.

Senate bill No. 669 would amend the Freedom of Student Expression law, which currently allows school administrators to exercise prior review and to “encourage” student journalists to adhere to “high standards of English and journalism,” but only allows them to censor when material is libelous, slanderous, obscene or promotes violation of the law or school policy.

The bill, however, would permit local school administrators to censor material that school officials believe does not meet English and journalism standards and would give them the authority to establish written guidelines regarding what those standards are. The bill would leave it up to school officials to define what constitutes “high standards of English and journalism.”

In response, high school students and teachers — accompanied by the ACLU and the Kansas National Education Association — appeared before the committee to defend the statute that presently protects them. According to John Hudnall of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, senators questioned the students about the appropriateness of the newspaper Vogt brought as an example of offensive material.

“The senators led the kids; it was awkward,” said Hudnall. “… But [the students] did an excellent job overall.” He described their testimony before the senators as “solid.”

The hearing schedule was adjusted from the outset as severe winter weather delayed the appearances of both opponents of the bill and those who support it. The hearing is set to resume on Friday, March 13, and Monday, March 16.