Anti-Hazelwood legislation introduced in Mich. senate

MICHIGAN — High school journalists in Michigan may receive more freedom from administrative intervention when writing articles for their student media if a recently proposed state senate bill becomes law.

The bill says that a school official or school board may not review or restrain a student publication prior to it being published, unless an article is obscene to minors; defaming or an invasion of privacy; or poses a “clear and present danger” of illegal or substantially disruptive activity.

Sen. Michael Switalski (D-Roseville) introduced the bill on Feb. 3, which was then passed on to the Committee on Education where it will stay until the committee chair produces a response.

The bill would grant students more press freedom rights, which were limited under the First Amendment after the 1988 landmark Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Students who worked for Hazelwood East High School’s student newspaper sued the school district after the principal removed two articles that he objected to: one on teen pregnancy and another on divorce.

The court, ruling that the students’ First Amendment rights were not violated, wrote, “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Nationally, the Hazelwood case has been used by school administrators to support their decisions to alter or prevent students’ articles from publication.

Switalski’s proposed legislation was largely influenced by a November 2004 ruling in a lawsuit that was brought by former Utica High School student Katy Dean against her Michigan school district. Dean, who graduated in 2002, sued Utica Community Schools when her school principal, Richard Machesky, removed her article and corresponding editorial from the school newspaper, The Arrow, hours before the paper was to be published. He claimed that Dean’s article was factually incorrect and lacked a balanced point of view.

Dean’s article reported on a lawsuit brought against the school district by a local resident who claimed his lung cancer and other illnesses were aggravated by diesel fumes from idling school buses in the district’s garage. Her article contained information about scientific studies, as well as sources knowledgeable about the effects diesel exhaust can have on people’s health, but lacked comment from school and community officials, who had denied her request to speak with them.

Dean won her lawsuit. The judge ruled that student journalists “must be allowed to publish viewpoints contrary to those of state authorities without intervention or censorship by the authorities themselves”, noting that the student publication at Utica High School was a limited public forum and thus had greater rights than those established in the Hazelwood case.

Five other state legislatures enacted laws protecting student free press rights in the years immediately following the Hazelwood decision. The most recent was Arkansas in 1995.

Switalski’s legislative assistant, Brad Comment, said the bill’s purpose is to protect students’ First Amendment rights.

“We want [students] to learn and understand the importance of the First Amendment,” Comment said, adding that Sen. Switalski understands firsthand the importance of free press rights because he is a former journalist.

Comment said Sen. Switalski has received positive feedback from various news organizations even though the bill is fairly new.

Gloria Olman, who was Katy Dean’s newspaper adviser, aided Switalski’s staff in formulating the bill. She noted that supporters of the bill will need to raise support from every possible source in order to ensure it passes through the legislature. Numerous committee meetings need to be arranged with school officials and school boards, Olman said.

Comment said he hopes if the bill becomes law it will influence other states.

“With technology being what it is today every state is well aware of what other states are doing,” Comment said. “Something like this could lead to other states following our lead in protecting youth’s rights. It’s all about the kids, they’re our future.”

Olman said she is unsure of how long the process could take for the bill to become law, but admitted that it could take months or years.

“I know it’s going to be a major battle,” Olman said. “But we will fight it.”

–By Britt Hulit

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