Student press supporters pessimistic about future of free-expression bills

When two states introduced student freedom-of-expression bills, studentpress supporters were ready for a First Amendment fight. But when one ofthe bills was amended and the other lost its sponsor, supporters were nolonger optimistic about coming out on top.

Alabama and Oregon are the two most recent states to attempt to passa bill giving students free-speech rights in school-sponsored publications.California has had such a law since 1977, while Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa,Kansas and Massachusetts have each enacted student free-expression lawssince 1988.

These laws were student press supporters’ response to the U.S. SupremeCourt’s 1988 landmark decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In thatcase, the Court limited the free-press and free-speech rights of high schoolstudents by allowing administrators to practice prior review and priorrestraint of many school-sponsored publications and other forms of studentexpression if school authorities could prove their actions were based onreasonable educational concerns.

In Alabama, supporters of student-press rights decided to takeanother crack at passing a freedom-of-expression bill after losing theirinitial battle last year.

House Bill 601,which was introduced in March and sponsored by Rep. SueSchmitz, D-Toney, finally passed the House Education Committee on April25 after being postponed twice while the state struggled with school fundingissues.

The bill was designed to give public school students the right to freedomof speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored publications. Inaddition, the bill would have given students the right to publish withoutprior review or prior restraint by administrators.

But a committee member proposed an amendment that would put high schoolpublications under the control of an editorial board consisting of theprincipal, two faculty members and a student editor.

Under the amendment, any material that receives two negative votes fromthe board would not be permitted to run in the paper.

In spite of the committee victory, the future of the bill is uncertain.Supporters are unsure whether they will support the bill with the amendmentattached to it.

Schmitz withdrew the same bill last year after a legislator introducedan amendment that would have changed the wording of the bill to read thatall publications would be subject to prior review instead of no publicationssubject to prior review.

In Oregon, student press advocates have hit a wall afterthe sponsor of their state’s student expression bill resigned.

House Bill 3497, which was sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Bowman, D-Portland,was introduced in February and referred to the Judiciary Committee. Bowmanresigned to campaign for chairperson of the Multnomah County Commissionin March.

The bill, which was drafted by Marc Abrams, a Portland School Boardmember and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, wouldprotect students from prior review and prior restraint, protect advisersfrom being reprimanded or fired and protect schools from being held legallyliable for the content of student publications.

According to Abrams, not much action has been taken on the bill.

“I don’t think this legislature is in a mood to do much of anythingthis year,” Abrams said.

Supporters are looking for another sponsor for the bill.