Washington state House of Representatives approves free student press bill

WASHINGTON — A student press freedom bill was passed early this morning by the Washington state House of Representatives by a 58-37 vote just one day before its legislative deadline and without a proposed amendment to remove high school students from the bill.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines) introduced the bill, HB 1307, in January to provide protection to both high school and college students from censorship, prior review and declare student editors solely responsible for content.

The bill would be the first law to protect both high school and college journalists under one statue. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Massachusetts currently have laws supporting high school press freedom and California has a law supporting the college press.

Brian Schraum, a student at Washington State University, spearheaded the bill’s creation after the 2005 Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Hosty v. Carter, which said public college administrators in three Midwestern states had the ability to censor some student publications.

After approval from the House Judiciary Committee in February, the bill was passed to the Rules Committee for review, where it was also approved for floor vote.

Four amendments to the bill were proposed to the bill, including one by Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend) to exclude high school students from the bill, which was rejected. Rodne proposed the same amendment while the bill was in the Judiciary Committee, but it was also voted down.

Rodne said that the current First Amendment law “recognizes that high school students’ First Amendment rights are not coextensive with those of adults and [those] of school administrators.” He added that teachers should have an interest in offering “some supervisory authority” to student publications.

Two amendments were presented by Rep. Glenn Anderson (R-Fall City), one proposing that public school students’ press and speech rights should not exceed those rights of state legislators, and another that said any legal fees spent by a public school in defending itself under the new law would be reimbursed by the state. Both were rejected.

A final amendment proposed by Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) was passed for clarifying the bill’s wording to state that both the school district school board of the district are not liable for content published in school-sponsored publications unless they are controlling the content.

Despite the dismissal of Rodne’s amendment, there were several opposing comments made in regards to the inclusion of high school students in the bill during floor debate late last night.

Rep. Mike Armstrong (R-Wenatchee) said it was not the students that he was worried about, but that the school officials would opt to eliminate journalism programs and student publications to avoid conflict.

“School boards are not going to want to take on the responsibilities that this bill instills,” Armstrong said. “We could see closures of newspapers in high schools and colleges — what a shame — what an educational tool to lose. It would just be a travesty.”

Rodne echoed this concern, calling it a potential “chilling effect” that could take place across the state.

Other legislators shared their opinions, reminiscing about working for student newspapers in their past, but also expressing their view of the bill as “silly” and something “no one cares about.”

Schraum said those comments were discouraging to him when the House had just voted on “bills about unprocessed milk and keeping dogs out of bars.”

“It was sad to hear this hour-long rant by the opponents who got up and said some really childish things, some insulting things [about the bill],” Schraum said. “I was disappointed that it had quickly deteriorated to that.”

Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said the arguments for and against the bill were split down party lines.

“My biggest disappointment is that this has become a partisan issue. It shouldn’t be,” Hiestand said. “Whether Republican lawmakers support the legislation or not, I was really disturbed by the lack of respect demonstrated by some of the bill’s opponents during the floor debate last night, some of whom expressed disdain that such a ‘silly’ issue was even taking up their time. The right of citizens to express themselves on issues that are important to them may not be a right opponents are willing to extend to high school students, but it’s certainly not frivolous.”

The bill will now be sent to the state Senate. Schraum said he is confident about the bill’s chances in the Senate and is pleased with its progress.

“I think we definitely have an uphill battle over there, but I’m optimistic,” Schraum said. “With close to 50 senators, we’re going to need every vote we can get.”

Upthegrove’s office anticipates the bill to be assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next few days, where Chairman Adam Kline (D-Seattle) is a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. Schraum said he is hopeful that if assigned to that committee, Kline’s involvement will help their cause.

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

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