Michigan legislator introduces high school free press bill

MICHIGAN — A Michigan state legislator proposed a high school free student press bill on March 15 in his second attempt to pass a bill of its kind in the last two years.

Sen. Michael Switalski (D-Roseville) introduced the bill, SB 352, which provides K-12 students the authority to decide the content of student publications and prohibits prior review by school officials.

The same bill was proposed by Switalski on February 3, 2005, as SB 156. The Committee on Education held a hearing on the bill that following April, but the session ended before a vote could be taken in committee.

Other former Michigan legislators have proposed similar bills dating back to 1991. The most recent attempt prior to Switalski’s efforts came in 1998 by former Rep. Lynne Martinez (D-Lansing) who also called for a law striking prior review and censorship of content for K-12 student publications.

Similar bills are pending in Washington and Oregon which would protect both public high school and college students under the same statue. A college free press bill is also pending in Illinois.

Laws protecting high school students exist in six other states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Massachusetts. California also passed a law in August 2006 that protects college students from censorship.

Michigan Interscholastic Press Association Executive Director Cheryl Pell said her organization is “hopeful” for the bill’s success, considering the Committee on Education is politically “conservative.” The Republican Party holds a majority in the committee and in the state senate.

“I just think we need to get kind of a ground swell of students who are interested in this,” Pell said. “Getting students involved is the way to go. Hopefully, we can do it.”

Pell also said that her organization plans on publicizing the bill by means of social networking sites like Facebook to rally interest among young adults.

Michigan Press Association Executive Director Mike MacLaren said he is concerned about the amount of authority this bill would give to students. He said that including school officials in the process “creates a system akin to what professional journalists face.”

“In professional constructs, a staff reporter could have their story edited or spiked if the publisher was not comfortable with what would appear in the publication,” MacLaren said. “I’ve been through that experience myself. And while at the time I disagreed with the publisher’s decision to spike my story, I learned the valuable lesson that the publisher calls the shots at the newspaper.”

A hearing has yet to be scheduled by the senate Committee on Education.

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

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