Washington state Senate committee hears testimony regarding student free press bill

WASHINGTON — A “big fan club” of high school students filled a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in support of a student free press bill March 27.

HB 1307 was the topic of discussion in the committee, which would offer both high school and college students protection from censorship under the same statute.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines) introduced the bill in January, hoping to add Washington to the list of the six states that have established similar laws. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have laws protecting high school students. California also recently passed a law protecting college students.

Upthegrove’s bill was approved by the state House of Representatives on March 13.

To begin the hearing, Upthegrove emphasized that the bill will help “clarify” any current laws that offer protection to student expression. He said they are “too vague and too broad” to offer the proper protection necessary for a learning environment.

Upthegrove said journalism teachers and advisers are still allowed to advise students on content and editing.

“Teachers and principals will still be able to teach, guide, instruct, oversee, review, even call in the students’ parents if they have some concerns about it,” Upthegrove said. “So this doesn’t mean the students have free reign. It just means the final decision will rest with the students.”

Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn) challenged and questioned the need for the bill, stating that current student expression laws should suffice. Washington Attorney Don Austin, also an adjunct professor of law, agreed saying that the “well-intended” bill “is not well written,” and it essentially gives students more rights than professional journalists.

“I don’t see any reason why we should create a special class of editors, namely high school editors, who can sue people who are over them if they don’t like something that’s come up with, whereas the editor of the Seattle Times can’t do that,” Austin said.

Austin also said that despite his support for student expression, the bill has too many “loopholes” that could pose problems for the schools, namely lawsuits.

“I can guarantee you, the rights that are stated in this bill are rights that can be sued presently under federal law, under state law,” Austin said. “The only new thing in this bill [that is different from state law] is the possibility to gouge school districts for attorneys’ fees. As a school teacher of 16 years, I don’t want to have a situation where there’s a lawsuit between me and my student and my duty to oversee and to supervise that student to do what I think is right.”

Section 4 of the bill states: “Any student, individually or through his or her parent or guardian, enrolled in a public high school may commence a civil action to obtain appropriate injunctive and declaratory relief as determined by a court…” It does not provide for lawsuits to be filed seeking monetary awards.

Student Press Law Center Attorney Mike Hiestand stated that “misinformation” was the root of comments at the hearing regarding the bill’s unimportance and legal liabilities.

“It wasn’t just a matter of having a difference of opinion, [the testimonies of some of the bill’s opponents were] providing outright misinformation,” Hiestand said. He agreed that Washington state does permit students rights to speak in school, but “when push comes to shove, it’s so broad that it may not be help much.” Hiestand also testified at the hearing on behalf of the bill.

Several students and other advocates also spoke on behalf of the bill, stressing the importance of its clarifying language, considering cases of student censorship that have taken place in the state.

Ryan Gardinier, editor in chief of The Current at Green River Community College, testified he was censored as a high school student for printing a photo of graffiti vandalism that was provided to him by the school.

Recent cases were also discussed by Fern Valentine, chair of the Washington Journalism Education Association’s Freedom of Expression board, including principals who were censoring newspapers to cut down on the number of phone calls they were receiving. Valentine said administrators told the students “they want nothing but positive stories” and that “the bad should not be spotlighted.”

Upthegrove said such instances are exactly what his bill could prevent.

“I worry about the health and strength of our democracy if the next generation grows up without an appreciation of their constitutional rights and responsibilities, and one of the best ways to impart upon young people those rights and responsibilities is to model those in our education environment,” Upthegrove said.

The bill must be voted on by tomorrow to proceed through the floor of the state senate.

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

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