Washington student free press bill passes committee on party-line vote

WASHINGTON — The Washington state student press freedom bill, introduced in January, was passed yesterday in a judiciary committee executive session by a 7-4 party-line vote without a proposed amendment to exclude high school students.

Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend) proposed the amendment, which would only apply the bill to college students. He said there are legal distinctions between high school and college student newspapers that should be addressed, referencing the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

“I didn’t think it was unreasonable to have a high school student publication, essentially a government-sponsored entity, to have faculty able to review articles,” Rodne said. “The bill will expose parents to liability in the event that a student newspaper was sued for libel. I thought that was a reasonable compromise to impose some safeguards on high school student publications.”

That amendment was turned down, but two others were approved. They exclude educational programs at correctional facilities and state that licensed broadcast stations cannot violate Federal Communications Commission regulations.

Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said he was pleased to know that all students are still included in the bill.

“I think that high school students have a need to protect and understand their First Amendment rights,” Hiestand said. “It’s not just reading about it in their civics textbooks.”

At the initial hearing, Washington State University student Brian Schraum, one of the bill’s initiators, testified before the committee. Schraum said he is “ecstatic” that the bill has passed the committee.

“I’m definitely optimistic and the showing we had at the hearing speaks volumes,” Schraum said. “I was never more proud to be a young person than I was at that hearing.”

Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Patricia Lantz (D-Gig Harbor), also a sponsor for the bill, expressed pride in the progression of the bill and the loyalty of its followers in a press release.

“First Amendment rights don’t stop at the school steps,” Lantz said. “I have been nothing but impressed by these students and how seriously they have taken this great responsibility.”

Committee members voted on party-lines for the bill; no Republicans voted in favor of the bill, all seven of the Democrats did. Both Hiestand and Schraum expressed surprise and disappointment at the vote.

I don’t know why folks see this as a partisan issue,” Hiestand said. “Free speech affects everyone.” Backing the bill, however, is state Attorney General Robert McKenna, a republican, whom Schraum says has offered much support.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines) introduced the bill Jan. 16 and a public judiciary committee hearing was held 10 days later. The legislation, if passed into law, would be the first to protect both high school and college journalists under the same statute. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts all have laws that protect free high school student expression, and California recently enacted a bill that affords additional protection to college journalists.

The bill will now be reviewed by the Washington state House of Representatives Rules Committee.

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

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