Oregon sends student free expression bill to governor

OREGON — A bill seeking to protect high school and college student press rights will likely be signed into law by Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) within a week, lawmakers say.

Once signed, House Bill 3279 will become the first state law that protects both high school and college student publications under a single statute. The bill passed by a narrow margin of 16-14 in the state Senate and by 29-16 in the House. The House confirmed amendments to the bill made by the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday by a vote of 39-21. But some Oregon legislators and legal experts have expressed disappointment that the amended bill is less press-protective than the original bill.

HB 3279 stipulates that high school and college journalists are responsible for determining the content of school-sponsored media. The bill also affirms the right of student journalists to pursue a lawsuit under the state law against schools that violate free press rights.

But the Senate’s amendments to the bill deleted a provision that designated college publications as “public forums” and removed the original bill’s guarantee that student media advisers who refuse to censor student journalists cannot be fired or transferred. The House had previously amended the bill by removing “advertising” from a list of protected student expressions for high school students and excising a clause that would have allowed for the awarding of attorney’s fees and costs.

The House also added a clause that will allow courts to award $100 in “injunctive and declaratory relief” to students who file lawsuits against their schools.

Rep. Larry Galizio (D-Tigard), who introduced the bill in March, said while he thinks the bill was better in its original, more protective form, the law will lend much-needed support to student press. Galizio said he concurred with the Senate committee’s revisions but plans to introduce new legislation in the fall that will offer more protections to student publications.

“I could have decided to not concur … and risk losing the entire bill or I could do what I have chosen to do,” he said.

Galizio said he was surprised that bill won by only a slim margin in the Senate. Lawmakers said the bill passed in the Senate on a party-line vote, with nearly all the Democrats voting in favor of the bill and all Republican senators voting against it.

Some experts questioned the impact the amendments will have on student publications and student media advisers.

Angela Thomas, deputy director of J-Ideas, a First Amendment institute at Ball State University, said she is concerned that some of the amendments to the Oregon bill — particularly the amendment that eliminates the “public forum” language — will devalue student journalism.

“[Students] are constantly being told by adults that freedom of expression is not something that belongs to them,” she said. “I think this just another example of how the grown-ups just don’t get it.”

But Student Press Law Center Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand said he thinks the bill will be valuable to student press in spite of the changes made in committee.

“I think it was a better before the Senate got its hands on it,” he said. “But the bottom line is that this is a good thing for Oregon student media.”

Six states have laws that protect high school student publications from censorship and California recently enacted a law protecting college journalists. HB 3279 would be the first high school protections enacted since 1995.

Gov. Kulongoski has indicated that he intends to sign the Oregon bill when it reaches his desk, his spokesperson, Jake Weigler, said.

If signed, the bill is set to take effect July 1.