Oregon Senate committee amends student press freedom bill

OREGON — A bill seeking to protect student press rights passed the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee May 30 on a 3-2 vote and is now headed for the Senate floor, though some experts say the amendments that have been added to the bill significantly cut down on its protections.

HB 3279, which protects the “right to exercise freedom of speech and press in school-sponsored media,” is currently being reassessed by the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office to account for the fiscal impact of new amendments made by the Senate committee, but the bill will likely make its way to the floor by the end of next week, said Jordan Rash, legislative assistant to Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland).

Burdick, a former reporter for the Associated Press, said she voted for the bill in committee because it makes clear that the First Amendment and Oregon’s statutes on freedom of expression apply to students as well as adults.

The most significant proposed amendments delete provisions that would protect high school and college student media advisers from being fired or otherwise disciplined for refusing to censor lawful student expression and also deletes a clause that ensures college-sponsored media are recognized as “public forums” and are not subject to prior review by administrators.

Another amendment to restrict college publications that violate state or federal law can also be seen as an effort to apply the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits schools from releasing information about students without their consent, to school media, Student Press Law Center Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand said

Hiestand said the suggested removal of the original bill’s protection for advisers would be a blow, but the other two amendments would more drastically undercut the press-protective spirit of the original bill.

“It doesn’t make bill unworthy of support, but it is a significant loss,” he said.

Burdick said certain provisions were taken out because “they were not needed.” She said media advisers are already protected by collective bargaining agreements.

“These people are not going to be fired for doing their job under this bill,” she said.

Burdick said though the bill no longer protects college journalists from prior review, it does not legalize prior restraint.

The state House of Representatives also amended the HB 3279 when it passed through the House Judiciary Committee several weeks ago. The House committee inserted a clause that will allow courts to award $100 in “injunctive and declaratory relief to students” who file lawsuits under the proposed law, removed “advertising” from expression protected by the state government, and deleted a clause that allowed for the awarding of attorney’s fees and costs.

Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha), who sponsored the original bill in the House, said he and his co-sponsors had intended to give students a chance to take on the challenges that professional journalists have to publish material responsibly.

“The changes concern me greatly,” he said.

The original bill was brought by Rep. Larry Galizio (D-Tigard) in March and is modeled after a similar student press rights bill that was introduced in Washington state but died in April before it reached the Senate floor.

Currently, six states have laws that protect high school student publications from censorship, and California last year passed a law protecting college student publications. Oregon would become the first state that protects both high school and college students under a single statute if the bill is passed and approved by Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D).

“We’re definitely following the nationwide trend toward empowering student journalism,” said Brad Cantor, Galizio’s chief of staff.

If the bill wins a majority vote on the Senate floor, it will return to the House to be re-approved with the new amendments. The legislative session ends June 29.

By Judy Wang, SPLC staff writer

Read the bill

  • Oregon student free expression bill passes state House News Flash, 5/16/2007
  • Oregon committee debates merits of student press freedom bill News Flash, 4/5/2007