WASHINGTON — An “overflowing” crowd of students and school officials attended the Washington state House of Representatives’ judiciary committee hearing Jan. 26 on HB 1307, the Washington state student free press bill, introduced 10 days ago.
State Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines) proposed the bill, which would be the first to protect both high school and college students from prior review and administrative censorship under the same statute.
Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts currently have laws that protect high school student publications from censorship. California recently enacted a law protecting college journalists as well.
In the committee hearing, Upthegrove said it is necessary for students to have “pride of ownership” over their work.
“A healthy democracy and accountable government depend on informed, engaged citizens, and I worry about a generation growing up without an understanding of their rights and not knowing how to apply those rights and responsibilities,” Upthegrove said.
Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, attended the hearing and said he was impressed with Upthegrove’s “inspirational” opening statement and the number of students present.
“It went just about as well as anyone had hoped,” Hiestand said. The hearing room was “overflowing” with students, which created an “energy in the room,” he said.
Between 15 and 20 people testified in favor of the bill, including students and advisers, according to Hiestand.
Brian Schraum, a former student at Green River Community College, first approached Upthegrove with the idea for the bill after the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Hosty v. Carter, which could provide college administrators in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin some ability to censor student publications. Now a student at Washington State University, Schraum also spoke on behalf of student journalists at the hearing.
“Look into the eyes of students in the audience,” Schraum said to the committee. “We are people.”
Jeff Nusser, adviser to the Emerald Ridge High School news magazine, The Jagwire, spoke on behalf of his students and the bill. Nusser said the opposition to the bill is “couched in fear of what students might do wrong.”
“I would like to challenge you and everybody else to consider what the students might do right if we give them this opportunity,” Nusser said. “[My students have] consistently exceeded my expectations…they’ve consistently provided work that is on par with professional journalists.”
Associate Publisher Kenneth Bunting of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer also testified, echoing an editorial he wrote in support of the bill that was published the morning of the hearing.
Six people testified against the bill, including administrators and members of state education associations.
Barbara Mertens, assistant executive director for governmental relations of the Washington State School Administrators Association, spoke against the bill.
“The public school newspaper that is run by the students is overseen by the school administrators and the teachers,” Mertens said at the hearing. “If you take away their responsibility to advise, guide, direct and determine what will or won’t be appropriate and civil for that particular newspaper, they have in fact not had the ability to do the very thing you hired them to do, to guide these students and to teach these students.
Jocelyn McCabe, director of communications and business partnerships for the Association of Washington School Principals, explained that although it was an “excellent day for students,” her organization remains opposed to the bill.
“It’s a difficult bill for us because we recognize that there are outstanding journalism programs and student journalists in our state,” McCabe said. “[High school newspapers] are funded by taxpayer dollars, which puts them in a whole different light than privately owned media.”
McCabe also said that although the opposition was “outnumbered” in the panel presentations, there are many more administrators who have doubts with the bill.
An executive session with the judiciary committee is currently scheduled for Tuesday at 10 a.m.
By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer