Student expression bills die

\nSupporters of the high school student press did not have much\nto cheer about this spring as state legislative sessions drew\nto a close.

Of the four bills designed to protect the student press that\nwere introduced, none became law.

Bills died this year in Connecticut, Missouri and Illinois,\nand legislation introduced in Nebraska is being held over until\nnext year.

In Connecticut, legislation intended “to prevent\nchallenges to or public criticism of student journalists who publish\npolitical or controversial material” died after supporters\nrejected a watered-down version of the bill. The House never voted\non the revised version before it adjourned in June.

The original legislation, sponsored by Reps. Thomasina Clemons,\nD-Vernon, and Patrick J. Flaherty, D-Coventry, would have prohibited\ncensorship of the student press in Connecticut public schools\nexcept to assure that expression is not libelous, slanderous or\nin violation of state law.

The legislation was rewritten, however, to encourage–instead\nof require–each board of education to adopt its own publication\ncode promoting free speech.

Stratos Pahis, a Connecticut high school student who helped\nauthor the original legislation, said he did not support the revised\nversion of the bill because it failed to require school boards\nto implement free press codes.

“We would basically have a law that said schools could\ndo whatever they want, and that’s worse than no law at all,”\nPahis said.

Ben Smilowitz, a high school student who also supported the\nbill, said there was a lot of miscommunication between the bill’s\nsupporters and the legislators.

He said legislators changed the bill’s language to help get\nthe bill passed but did not realize the compromise would be unacceptable\nto many of the bill’s supporters.

Smilowitz said it is unlikely the bill will be introduced again\nnext year because of last session’s miscommunication, which resulted\nin hurt feelings between legislators and supporters. But he said\nhe hopes it will eventually be passed.

“A lot of times, students don’t know their rights are\nbeing trampled on because they don’t know [censorship is] wrong,”\nSmilowitz said. “We want to have a bill that says students\ncould write anything that wasn’t libelous, slanderous or illegal.”

Smilowitz advised students who are trying to get a freedom\nof student expression bill passed in their own states to “create\ngood relationships with their legislators and keep an eye on what’s\ngoing on.”

“Start early,” he said. “Get more students.\nThe more constituents you have knocking on their doors, the better\nchance you have to get your bill passed.”

Legislation to adopt a statewide freedom of expression act\nin Nebraska is being held over until next year.

The original bill, LB 182, was introduced by Sen. Chris Beutler,\nD-Lincoln. It would have required school boards in the state to\nimplement freedom of expression codes for student publications.\nBut the legislature’s education committee added an amendment to\nthe bill that was similar to the revised version of Connecticut’s\nstudent press bill, which encourages, rather than requires, school\nboards to adopt freedom of expression codes.

Unlike the proponents of the Connecticut bill, however, backers\nof the Nebraska legislation still support the revised version\nof their bill.

“It doesn’t do what we wanted it to do, but it’s better\nthan what we have right now,” said supporter Kathy Stockham,\npresident of the Nebraska High School Press Association.

The bill has already been introduced to the legislature several\ntimes and still has not reached the floor, although it did make\nit out of committee this session.

John Bender, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln\nand a supporter of the bill, said one of the main problems with\ngetting the legislation passed is that none of the senators has\ndesignated it as a priority bill, a classification that would\nspeed its journey through Nebraska’s unicameral legislature.

Bender said several senators have expressed interest in making\nthe bill a priority, but even if the bill is not given priority\nstatus, it is high enough on the general file agenda to make it\nto the floor next session.

Both Bender and Stockham said they plan to support the amended\nlegislation when it is reintroduced next year.

Although amendments to the bill have weakened it, Bender said\nit will at least encourage school boards to adopt publication\ncodes so that students will know what the policy is in advance.

“In almost every instance where there is censorship or\na threat of censorship, it’s almost always because principals\nor superintendents or whoever is in charge wants to avoid controversy\nor doesn’t like what’s being said,” Bender said.

“[The bill contains] the basic idea that school administrators\ncan’t censor student expression simply because it’s controversial,”\nhe said.

Bender and Stockham both said they believe the bill has a good\nchance of passing next session.

“We have strong support for it on the committee,”\nStockham said. “There are some strong voices for it.”

In Missouri, a freedom of expression bill died in May\nafter the House judiciary committee chair refused to permit a\nhearing on it.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Joan Bray, D-University City,\nwould have limited the liability of school administrators for\nstudent expression to situations in which they interfered with\nthe expression by censoring or altering an article, for example.

But the legislation was never voted on.

“We didn’t even get a hearing for House Bill 245,”\nsaid supporter Bill Hankins, a journalism adviser at Oak Park\nHigh School in Kansas City. “We were totally shut out. The\nchair wouldn’t even put it on the agenda to be heard. It just\ndied.”

Hankins, who is also a member of the Missouri Journalism Education\nAssociation, said it is unlikely the legislation will be reintroduced\nnext year.

“We just don’t feel like the Missouri legislature is ever\ngoing to come around,” Hankins said. “We’ve been fighting\nthis battle for eight years.”

Instead, Hankins said supporters of free student expression\nare working to arrange a meeting with journalism advisers and\nthe state’s commissioner of education to establish a publication\ncode protecting student speech through the state department of\neducation.

A bill in Illinois to protect student expression died\nin April after amendments to it dampened the enthusiasm of many\nof its supporters.

Although the bill passed the House by a vote of 110-5, last-minute\nchanges to it gave principals more censorship power and deleted\nadvertising content from the law’s protections.

James Tidwell, a professor at Eastern Illinois University and\na supporter of the bill, said an amendment allowing school principals\nto censor material that they, as opposed to a court, determine\nis disruptive, libelous, obscene, an invasion of privacy or incites\nstudents to cause imminent lawless action was proposed by a lobbyist\nrepresenting the state’s school boards.

Tidwell said Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, R-Naperville, who introduced\nthe bill, accepted the amendment without consulting the Illinois\nJournalism Education Association.

“We would never have agreed to [the amendment],”\nTidwell said. “No bill would be better in some ways.”

Tidwell attributed the bill’s demise, in part, to supporters’\ntaking its passage for granted. The bill sailed through the House\nand Senate in 1997, but then-Gov. Jim Edgar vetoed it. Supporters\nbelieved the bill would be just as successful in the legislature\nthis year, and Gov. George Ryan had already promised to sign it\ninto law.

“We should have kept closer tabs on what was going on,”\nTidwell said. “Nothing is automatic anymore, that’s for sure.”

Tidwell said the bill will not be reintroduced until 2001 because\nthe legislature will focus primarily on budget matters next year.

After a bill designed to protect student expression died last\nfall, Michigan Rep. Lynne Martinez, D-Lansing, said she\nwould reintroduce the legislation when the House convened in January.\nMartinez never introduced the bill, however, because she said\nshe sponsored too many other bills, and House regulations prevented\nher from introducing another. But Martinez said she will introduce\nthe bill again in the fall.

Eleven years after the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision,\nwhich gave school officials greater authority to censor school-sponsored\nstudent expression, only six states-California, Arkansas, Massachusetts,\nIowa, Kansas and Colorado-have laws protecting school-sponsored\npublications from censorship. The most recent legislation–in\nArkansas–was enacted four years ago, in 1995.

Many advocates of the student press wonder whether there is\nenough public support for the rights of student journalists to\npass student free expression laws.

“I think passing more state laws will be a long battle,”\nsaid H.L. Hall, president of the Journalism Education Association.\n”Illinois came so close twice and still couldn’t get a bill\npassed. What is even more frustrating is the incidents of censorship\nI read about in states that do have laws. Therefore, I question\nhow much good the laws are doing.”

Hall said most people do not support increased student press\nrights.

“I think the public does not understand that the student\npress is really controlled by the same laws concerning libel,\nobscenity, invasion of privacy that the professional press is,”\nhe said. “I know I had lots of parents tell me in 1988 that\nthey were glad about the Hazelwood decision as they thought it\nwas time some controls were placed on the student press. They\ndidn’t realize there were already controls.”\n