Student free-expression bill resubmitted in Wash. Senate

WASHINGTON — Student press advocates resubmitted a bill in the state Senate todaythat would add Washington to the list of states that protect public high schooland college journalists from censorship.

Sen. Joe McDermott (D-Seattle) todaysubmitted SB 6449, a student free-press bill almost identical to a proposal thatpassed the state House of Representatives in March 2007 but that failed to gaina vote on the Senate floor before the 2007 session expired. McDermott was joinedby four co-sponsors, including Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), chairman of theJudiciary Committee.

Like last year’s proposal, sponsoredby Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), the Senate bill makes student editorsresponsible for all content in school-sponsored media at public high schools andcolleges, even if the student outlets are funded by the school or operate aspart of a class. It forbids colleges from instituting mandatory prior review ofa student publication. At the high school level, it allows administrators toreview student media but to censor material only if it is obscene as to minors,libelous, “constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy” or incites studentsto break laws, violate school regulations or cause a material and substantialdisruption of the school.

The bill would forbid administrators at bothhigh schools and colleges from firing, transferring or otherwise discipliningmedia advisers “for refusing to suppress the protected free expression rights ofstudent journalists.” It also makes clear that schools and school officialscannot be sued or held responsible for material that runs in a studentpublication “unless school officials or the governing board have interfered withor altered the content of the student expression.”

There are few substantive changes betweenthis year’s version and last year’s. For example, this year’s version clarifiesthat courts may award only “reasonable” attorney’s fees to students whosuccessfully sue their districts for violating the free-expression law. BrianSchraum, who helped lead efforts to get the bill passed while he was in highschool and college, said that change was intended to blunt criticisms that theoriginal bill might lead to costly judgments against school districts.

“I think the bill isn’t fundamentally anydifferent than it was last year,” Schraum said.

McDermott, who served in the state House forseven years before being appointed to the Senate in October, said he firstbecame interested in sponsoring the Senate version of the bill after meetingwith editors of the Vashon Island High School Riptide. Schooladministrators forced the paper to pull an article detailing concerns about acoach, and Principal Susan Hanson wrote in a letter to student editors that thestudent paper was not “an appropriate vehicle for airing concerns, complaintsand criticisms of District staff.”

“That’s when I knew I was eager to primesponsor the bill in the Senate,” McDermott said.

In the past year, proponents have worked toorganize support for the bill, forming the Washington Coalition for ResponsibleStudent Expression. The 16-member coalition includes educators’ groups such asthe Journalism Education Association, media groups such as the WashingtonNewspaper Publishers Association and civil liberties organizations, includingthe Student Press Law Center.

Backers also have worked to allay the concernsexpressed by the bill’s skeptics. Kathy Schrier, president of theWashington Journalism Education Association, said the group has been trying toconvince principals, especially, that the bill “isn’t as threatening” asthey might have first believed. In particular, the bill’s proponents havetried to dispel the belief that the bill would increase the number of lawsuitsagainst schools, which Schrier said was one of the biggest concerns lastyear.

“The facts prove that just to be a fallacy,”Schrier said, citing the experiences of the seven states that have passedsimilar legislation — including neighboring Oregon, where ananti-censorship law passed in July 2007.

Schrier said she thinks discussions withindividual principals and with the Association of Washington School Principals– which opposed the bill last year — are having an effect. Shepointed to increased collaboration between the Washington JEA and the principalsgroup on sessions at conferences, as well as the fact that the principals group,in its fall magazine, ran columns supporting student editorial control overstudent media by both the principal and the media adviser at Mountlake TerraceHigh School.

Jocelyn McCabe, communications director for theprincipals group, said she also thought the association’s members and the bill’sproponents have gained a better understanding of each other’s positions in thelast year. But she said the association remains concerned at the prospect of”the removal of the principal in the advisory process.”

Principals offer guidance and serve as theequivalent of the editors whom journalists would encounter in the professionalworld, McCabe said. “The student newspaper in a high school setting is ateaching tool. … We believe that there needs to be some oversight.”

And McCabe noted concerns among administratorsthat the bill’s protections for media advisers would make those teachersessentially “untouchable.” She said the association would review the new billand likely decide within a week or two whether to take an official position onit.

The bill’s backers are confident that it will gainapproval in the House again but acknowledge that prospects in the Senate areuncertain. Last year, the bill faced strong opposition from the principals groupand the Washington Association of School Administrators, which representssuperintendents. The bill gained the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval onlyafter the bill’s sponsors agreed to an amendment that removed the protectionsfor high school journalists, leaving only the college-level protections.

McDermott, who now serves on the Senate JudiciaryCommittee, said he hopes to use the connections he made on the House EducationCommittee to build support for this year’s bill.

Schraum, who graduation from Washington StateUniversity in December, said he hopes to see his years of work come tofruition.

Said Schraum, “We’ll keep our fingers crossed and see wherethings go.”

By Michael Beder, SPLC staff writer