Kansas considers limiting press freedoms

KANSAS — From the schoolhouse to the statehouse, the debate continues over how much freedom legislators will grant to the student press. In March, state senators held 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.Ellinwood 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.” One student who testified was Alexis Vanasse, whose school newspaper, Panther Tales, lost its editorial page after Great Bend High School1s principal, Mike Hester, pulled her opinion piece. She had criticized the administration, suggesting that they practiced preferential treatment for rule-breaking students from prominent families.Vanasse has close ties with the legislation since it was proposed by state Sen. Laurie Bleeker, R-Great Bend, who was a member of the school board when Hester removed the editorial section of Panther Tales. In the Great Bend Tribune, Bleeker defended her bill, writing, “[The school newspaper] is not designed or intended to be an unregulated platform for students to espouse unrestricted speech. … In the ‘real’ world, all reporters and journalists are subject to editorial review. Every reporter or editor is ultimately accountable to someone in authority over them.”However, Vanasse noted that students testifying before the committee were quick to respond when senators posed questions that compared the student press to professional newspapers. They stressed the fact that student newspapers are not privately owned and therefore fall under the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.Vanasse also said that some senators lobbed them “easy” questions about libel to make sure that student journalists are informed about the issues.Presently, Senate bill no. 669 is “resting in subcommittee,” according to state Sen. Barbara Lawrence, R-Wichita, who is chair of the Education Committee. Lawrence told Hudnall that the bill “is dead for now.”As a result, the Kansas student press is temporarily out of the line of fire from legislators who want to curtail young journalists’ rights. But Hudnall warned, “We’re going to have to be very cautious.”He observed that conservative members of the state legislature may have sent it the bill to subcommittee where it could be quietly buried without the embarrassment of a losing vote on the senate floor; but they might resurrect it in the future.”I think it will come up again,” Hudnall commented. “It was a real wakeup call for us in Kansas.”Vanasse commented that she hopes things “can go that well if it ever comes up again.”