Student free expression proposals sweep legislatures from coast to coast, some survive, but others meet an early end

Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston were just seniors at Everett High School when they filed a federal lawsuit against their school.

The Washington state high school in Everett was hiring a new principal and, as editors of their high school newspaper, The Kodak, Lueneburg and Eccleston assigned the staff to carefully report the selection process. When a candidate was chosen for the position, the student editors became suspicious; the selection committee’s student members had ranked two candidates above her.

Articles suggesting that the student voices had been neglected were printed in the Kodak, which prompted the school principal to establish future prior review of the publication. She also asked the students to remove the phrase describing the paper as a “student forum” from the Kodak’s masthead.

The editors responded by refusing to print the next edition. When matters did not improve, they protested by means of a blank, four-page publication that only included a statement about the incident and one photo: Lueneburg and Eccleston posing with their hands behind their backs and tape across their mouths.

Incidents like the one in Everett have attracted the attention of not only the media, but also politicians, students and journalism teachers who are taking steps to enact state legislation and that would protect student press rights.

Student press freedom 2007

In the spotlight of this movement are a number of student press freedom bills introduced this year, a trend that began in Washington state with one student’s vision.

Washington State University student Brian Schraum found opposition at his former school, Green River Community College, in establishing a publications policy that would protect students from administrative censorship. When he confronted opposition from school administrators, he turned to state Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), and the two focused on drafting a bill to protect both high school and college students under one statute and also the first student free press proposal in the state in more than 15 years.

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have laws that protect high school students, the last enacted in 1995. California also passed a law specifically protecting college students from censorship in August 2006.

The majority of these laws and the recent state proposals stem from two major court cases — decided decades apart. The first case, decided in 1988, was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The incident spawning the fight for the student press began in Missouri when a Hazelwood East High School principal censored two articles on the impact of divorce on students and teenage pregnancy.

A federal district court ruled in favor of the school district, but that decision was later reversed by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, stating the school could not meet the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker standard, which required showing substantial disruption of the school activities or invasion of the rights of others. The U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise, reversing the decision one last time in favor of the school district and stating that school officials have some authority to impose prior review and censor content for school-sponsored publications that are not public forums. In Hazelwood, the Court set a less protective standard for some school-sponsored publications.

But the Hazelwood ruling still does not sit well with some.

A heightened concern for college student press freedom came after the 2005 Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Hosty v. Carter, which said college student newspapers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin could be subjected to the same restrictions set by Hazelwood. It was the Hosty decision that prompted Schraum to push for student press protection in his state.

Over the past several months, Upthegrove’s bill, HB 1307, faced opposition including aggressive amendments and party-line voting, ending with the bill’s death in the state Senate where it was not brought up for vote prior to the legislative deadline.

Despite its sudden ending, advocates say the track record for the bill is an impressive one. From the start, the bill gained 19 additional sponsors, all of whom were Democrats, and enough supporters to make any political candidate jealous.

The bill’s first hearing with the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Jan. 26 attracted a crowd of students and advocates too large for the room. Despite some disparaging words from the Washington State School Administrators Association and the Association of Washington School Principals, the committee appeared to be moved by the words of the students and teachers with stories of censorship in their 7-4 vote. The committee also voted to defeat an amendment that was proposed by Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend) that would have cut high school students from the bill.

Rodne’s amendment surfaced and was defeated for the second time on the House floor, and a victorious 58-37 vote sent the bill to the state Senate just before a legislative deadline. Still concerned about partisan voting, Upthegrove and advocates sought to gain as much support as possible.

Although crowds of supporters for the bill attended the March 27state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Rodney Tom’s (D-Medina) amendment to strike high school students from the bill was approved in an executive session on March 30. The committee had initially killed the whole bill, but with Upthegrove’s persuasion, consented to vote on it after striking the protection for high school students and gaining Upthegrove’s written agreement to not attempt to re-amend the bill on the Senate floor.

Upthegrove was “hopeful” about getting the college portion of his original bill signed as it held less controversy than the high school guidelines, but many bills often meet this fate, he said. Of the 2,700 bills that were introduced in the 2007 session, only 540 were successful in making it to the governor’s desk, according to the Washington legislature’s office.

In retrospect, Upthegrove said greater success might have been achieved through more communication with Republicans prior to the session, as the bill’s support was split down party lines.

“One of the senators even indicated that to me, ‘You’ve made some good points, but I’ve committed my vote,’” Upthegrove said.

Although this has been a setback for the bill, Upthegrove said “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” he will reintroduce a bill in the near future that would protect high school students.

“I feel like we’ve stated a movement to some degree,” Upthegrove said. “We shouldn’t view the bill as an ending place.”

Jumping on the bandwagon

Whether the motivation for state student press legislation came from Upthegrove’s lead or on-campus conflicts, evidence of a student press freedom legislation movement is apparent.

Oregon state Rep. Larry Galizio (D-Tigard) caught the fever from the north and proposed a bill, HB 3279, that would protect high school and higher education students in Oregon and encourage them “to become educated, informed and responsible members of society,” according to the bill. Oregon state law gives free expression rights to all citizens, but Galizio said students need further protection from those who might read that law too broadly.

“Because of the sensitive nature of high school students and concerns in smaller towns, there can be situations where a student or students are writing an article that is not perceived favorable by administrators or interests in the community,” Galizio said.

Similar efforts to protect student publications have been progressing in Illinois where Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest) introduced the College Campus Press Act, SB 729, in February, which would protect state public college and university students from the Hosty decision. That ruling only applies in the Seventh Circuit, which is comprised of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin public schools.

The College Campus Press Act, initiated by the Illinois Civil Liberties Union, was quickly passed through the state Senate with the help of a unanimous vote from the Senate Rules Committee. In the state House of Representatives, the bill has been assigned to the House Rules Committee and also gained bipartisan sponsorship from two representatives: Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Champaign) and Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington).

Carrying the bill relay east, Michigan state Sen. Michael Switalski (D-Roseville) made his second attempt at a student press freedom bill by introducing SB 352 on March 15. The bill was referred to the state Senate Education Committee. His previous bill, which was sent to the same committee, was heard on April 14, 2005, but ran out of time before a vote could be taken.

Despite a process parallel thus far to his first attempt, Switalski remains optimistic.

“I believe this legislation addresses fundamental issues of the First Amendment to freedom of speech and the free exercise of the press,” Switalski said. “This bill has a better chance of passing than in the past because it is being considered by a new legislature.”

Not only does he hope to see SB 352 enacted into law, Switalski is looking to educate students that a free press is a “basic freedom” for Americans. He cited a 2005 survey funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which revealed that nearly one half of American high school students surveyed believe media content should be approved by the government prior to publishing.

“I believe Senate Bill 352 would further help educate students on their First Amendment rights and allow students to use their creative talents to further their educational experiences,” Switalski said.

Taking the next step

Although becoming involved in politics may be far from a budding reporter’s mind, many student journalists around the country are taking an interest in the legislative process as a result of school-inflicted censorship.

Such is the case in St. Francis, Minn. for staff members of The Crier, a student newspaper at St. Francis High School. The staff ran a photograph of a student holding what appeared to be a torn American flag. It was in fact a tablecloth patterned with the stars and stripes that was used for a scene in the school’s play.

When the principal found out about the photo, he halted printing and said the photo was more of a political statement that could be viewed as offensive to community members. After some opposition, the students complied, but printed a blue box containing the words, “Originally a photo was to be placed here, but it was censored by the administration.”

Crier Editor in Chief Eric Sheforgen said that as the conflict escalated to levels of policy change, he began doing his own research. Amidst his reading of Hazelwood, Sheforgen also found that the last legislative attempt in his state to nullify the ruling was nearly 15 years ago. Fortunately for him, the original authors of the 1992 bill are still members of the state legislature.

With the current efforts of Washington’s advocates, Sheforgen said he wants to make the attempt as well and says he is making headway.

“A lot of the problem at Eric’s school is that the principals do not understand…that giving the students the freedom to be journalists isn’t going to mean they’re going to be irresponsible journalists,” Minnesota High School Press Association Program Assistant Sarah Rice said.

Rice said she and Sheforgen are developing a plan of action to develop one for their state, beginning with a comparison of the Washington and Oregon bills. While she developed a memo to contact members of the state legislature, Rice said Sheforgen researched to find potential sponsors who are interested in student expression and First Amendment issues. Further support was sought by contacting teachers and principals in Rice’s organization. As did Washington with its bill, Rice anticipates potential partisanship and opposition.

“Minnesota is a progressive state and has a lot of forward-thinking ideas,” Rice said. “The challenge…is the state doesn’t have really active journalism schools. Maybe it could unite the journalism programs in the state.”

For now, Sheforgen is also informing other students about censorship through workshops to emphasize that high school journalism is just as important as the collegiate and professional press.

“Prior review is teaching students that they’re not responsible for choosing their content,” Sheforgen said. “Teachers are saying, ‘You can write it, but we’re in control.’”

He said he has hopes for even more efforts by students across the country, but expects it will take a crisis at their own school to motivate them to take action.

“As soon as you combine censorship, the flag and school, those three things combined make for a big issue,” Sheforgen said. “Looking back on this, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to give in. I absolutely would have printed it.”

Other organizations like the Indiana High School Press Association are seeking supporters for student press legislation through other means. IHSPA Executive Director Diana Hadley headed a First Amendment Symposium that took place March 6 where students, legislators, advisers and administrators discussed student censorship in the state.

The IHSPA is currently is looking for a sponsor to introduce legislation because “it takes a village to move forward on something like this,” Hadley said.

In addition to Minnesota and Indiana, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman said he is aware of three other states where similar legislation is being pursued.

Are they ‘just students’?

Those in opposition say that high school students do not have the capability to responsibly publish a newspaper and maintain consistent content quality.

A bill introduced in February by Kansas Rep. Don Myers (R-Derby) was designed to allow the school and community to monitor the content of high school publications, without conflicting with the Kansas Student Publications Act, Myers said. Established in 1992, the law grants student editors full responsibility and states that “material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter.”

Myers said he in no way wants to change that statute, but simply wants to offer “older peer review” of what topics are appropriate under community standards by means of a committee consisting of a school board member, the superintendent and a parent within the district.

“It is permissive on the part of the committee that they review publications and it’s not required that the students go along,” Myers said.

Student press advocates are speaking against the bill, claiming that its measures are an “extreme” attempt to “gain outside control of the publication.”

Washington alone has seen at least three highly publicized incidents of student censorship in recent years, including that of Lueneburg and Eccleston, who were awarded the 2006 Courage in Student Journalism Award by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

In March, students at Lake Stevens High School were censored from running an article critical of an English teacher’s class, while Vashon High School students were stopped from printing a piece criticizing the Hazelwood ruling that can permit school officials to censor.

Winnings to be gained

Despite the controversy, these legislative examples have proven to be learning experiences for students and educators, and demonstrate the growing concerns about censorship. Many advocates claim that one advantage from these proactive steps toward student press protection is a more open discussion between students and school officials.

Frank Ragulsky, executive director of the Northwest Scholastic Press Association, an organization of student media advisers in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, said that “focus groups” could be created to open communication between the community and school publications.

Stephen Matsen, the Northwest director for the Journalism Education Association, said that the Washington bill was “fortunate” enough to be supported by the recent acts of censorship in the state, which proved the need for legislative action.

Ragulsky hopes that the publicity and indirect support of other bills will lead to the collective strengthening of student press protection in all states.

“If more states get involved, then I think it affirms the high school students’ First Amendment rights and it could take Hazelwood out of the driver’s seat,” Ragulsky said, also adding that this movement is also affecting the college student publications as seen in the Washington, Oregon and Illinois bills.

Although deadlines cut the life of the Washington bill short, morale remains high for the next opportunity to reintroduce the bill. Upthegrove said he has been inspired by the “patience, persistence and motivation” of the people with whom he worked.

“We’ve really started a movement for student press freedom rights that started a fire around the country,” Upthegrove said. “I always try to look at the positive in things. One positive thing is we’ve started a movement in Washington state that is going to continue after this year. Next year we’ll be back. We’ve started a large coalition in this state against the abuse of school administrators. This is just the beginning.”