Oregon committee debates merits of student press freedom bill

OREGON — An Oregon state House of Representatives committee heard testimony on a proposed student press freedom bill March 29, which has now become the only bill in the nation that would offer protection to both high school and college students under one statute.

The student press freedom bill, HB 3279, was introduced by Rep. Larry Galizio (D-Tigard) on March 13 and would protect both high school and college students from censorship by school officials. The bill, modeled after a similar bill that was introduced by Washington state Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), was intended to “strengthen and clarify” any existing expression laws in the state, Galizio said.

The Washington bill was amended March 30 by the Washington state Senate Judiciary Committee to only apply to public college students.

Confederation of School Administrators Governmental Relations Director Chuck Bennett spoke against the bill, stating that in his experience as a newspaper reporter, editor and adjunct journalism professor, he learned that “the company runs the newspaper.”

“They determined what went into that newspaper,” Bennett said. “Whether I was editor or reporter, they owned the newspaper.”

He also said that he would like to pursue discussion with Galizio in developing an outline of how a governmentally funded publication, such as a high school student newspaper, should run, while still allowing students to express themselves.

Oregon School Board Association Legislative and Public Affairs Specialist David Williams also testified against the bill, voicing his concerns for possible lawsuits erupting over conflicts concerning prior review, questionable content and editorial decisions.

American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon Executive Director David Fidanque testified in support of the bill, but also offered concerns for the bill’s provisions. He said that the bill does not provide for damage claims to be filed by students, which would allow students to pursue claims after they have graduated.

Fidanque told the story of one case that was heard by the Oregon Supreme Court nearly three years after a censorship incident, but was not ruled on because the students were no longer in school and the court declared the case moot. Fidanque said the court noted that Oregon laws protect free expression, but there was “no case or controversy” to be decided as required by the declaratory judgment provision.

“Ideally, the ACLU would like to have a mechanism to determine whether student have constitutional rights in Oregon and what those rights are,” Fidanque said. “To be able to pursue that, we would have to have a statute that would allow students to sue for violations of their state constitutional rights and would at least allow for recovery of nominal damages.”

The language of the bill may not be perfect, but Fidanque said that student censorship needs to be addressed and that “the problem is very real.”

Other testimonies expanded on the existing problem of student censorship in the state.

Tiffany Fegel, editor of the Mountain Echoes at Sandy High School in Sandy, Oregon, discussed the need to promote journalism and educate journalism students because of the decreasing popularity of print journalism.

“The newspaper is becoming obsolete, especially [with] students; our readership is not the highest,” Fegel said. “We are encouraged to cover things that would interest our readers. It’s hard to do this when we have to be careful of whose toes we’re stepping on.”

Echoes Adviser J.D. McIntire, who is also a member of the Oregon Journalism Education Association, said that a bill such as this could push school officials to shut down student newspapers to avoid lawsuits.

“I fear leaving the situation I have in Sandy,” McIntire said. “My principal’s attitude is that you can cover anything you want as long as you cover it well. We have to get officials to understand that fear is not a good determinator of curriculum. This is an issue of making the paper inside the school work.”

Molly Bedford, managing editor of the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald, and Lauren Dillard, editor in chief of the Oregon State University Daily Barometer, said that as independent newspapers, they exercise editorial freedom that many other state public colleges do not have. Dillard challenged the committee to consider student publications as having the same civic responsibility as any privately owned newspaper.

“It’s the job of the news media to ask questions,” Dillard said. “I have been taught at OSU [the media is] the Fourth Estate; we are the watchdog for the government. It is a shame that our laws do not reflect that. You know have the power to change that.”

Some of the state representatives also spoke on issues of censorship as former journalists.

Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego) said that the issue “resonates” with him, as he was a former editor of an off-campus newspaper that was started in response to censorship at his high school.

Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Portland) is an American history and civics teacher, and was editor in chief of his college newspaper. During that time, he said he and his staff worked with his school to develop a policy to gain more journalistic independence, which led the staff to become independent of the school and its funding.

“It was a real lesson in the rights that student journalists actually have,” Cannon said. “That free market place of ideas does so much or our country and has historically. It can ensure that the diversity of views are heard.”

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

  • Oregon bill receives support from local scholastic press association News Flash, 3/21/2007Oregon legislator prepares free press bill modeled after Washington state bill News Flash, 3/2/2007