Michigan anti-censorship bill likely to die, student press advocates say

MICHIGAN– A state bill that would protect high school newspapers fromcensorship is not picking up any steam more than a year after it was proposed.And the Michigan Press Association’s decision not to support the bill isnot helping matters, one student press advocate said.

Michigan SenateBill 156says that a school official or school board may not review or restrain a studentpublication prior to its publication unless an article is obscene to minors,defamatory, an invasion of privacy or if it poses a “clear and present danger”of illegal or substantially disruptive activity.

Sen. MichaelSwitalski, D-Roseville, introduced the bill in 2004.

Student pressadvocates agree it is unlikely to gain enough support to become state law. TheMPA not supporting the bill does not help matters, said Perry Parks, a member ofthe Michigan Collegiate Press Association Board of Directors, which isaffiliated with the MPA. The Michigan Collegiate Press Association has publiclysupported the bill, Parks said.

“It would be easy for alegislator who’s looking at this bill to say, ‘The MPA isn’teven behind this bill, so why should I be?’” said Parks, who is alsothe editorial adviser for Michigan State University’s student newspaper, The State News.

MPA’sexecutive director Mike MacLaren said his organization, which represents theinterests of 300 Michigan newspapers, has been known to support and lobby forFirst Amendment-related bills. But this bill was one the board of directorschose not to take a position on.

“We weren’t comfortablesupporting it as it was written,” MacLaren said. “When you go towork for a for-profit, publicly-held newspaper, quite often stories are going toget spiked by the editor. Students have to be prepared for thoseeventualities.”

Bills like Senate Bill 156, which are referredto as anti-Hazelwood laws and are onthe books in six states, give students greater First Amendment protection. Highschool students’ First Amendment rights were limited after the 1988landmark Supreme Court decision HazelwoodSchool District v. Kuhlmeier. Students who worked for Hazelwood East HighSchool’s student newspaper sued the school district after the principalremoved two articles that he objected to: one on teen pregnancy and another ondivorce.

The court, ruling that the students’ First Amendmentrights were not violated, wrote, “Educators do not offend the First Amendment byexercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech inschool-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonablyrelated to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

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

Both Parks and MacLaren are formerreporters and used their background to justify their position on whether highschool journalists should have expanded free speech rights.

Parkscredited his pre-Hazelwood high schoolnewspaper experience with giving him the gumption to pursue hotstories.

“Standing up to miffed high school administrators gaveme the courage to talk my way past a police line in college and the confidenceto challenge a federal marshal trying to exclude reporters from a high-profiletrial on my first job,” Parks wrote in a February article published inMPA’s newsletter.

MacLaren said he was no stranger tocensorship when he worked as a professionalreporter.

“I’ve had that happen to me,” he said.

“I could argue all I wanted with my editor and publisher, but at the endof the day, they own the paper and I work for them. That’s a criticallesson for student journalists.”

Comparing schooladministrators to professional newspaper publishers is way off, Parks said. Bothpublishers and reporters have the common goal of exercising their free speechrights; administrators are not looking out for the First Amendment rights oftheir students, Parks said.

Ultimately, without a bill to protectMichigan student journalists, high school students will not learn the kind ofinvestigative journalism that is valued at professional newspapers, Parkssaid.

“If you’re thinking long term and you’re apublisher in Michigan, you want people to come and work for your newspaper whoknow how to challenge authority, write about sensitive issues and make adifference,” Parks said. High school newspaper censorship “producesthe kind of bland journalism that is turning people away from newspapers tobegin with.”