WASHINGTON — Students, newspaper advisers, school boardrepresentatives, and First Amendment advocates filed into a Senate JudiciaryCommittee hearing in Washington yesterday to debate, for the third year in arow, the merits of student free press legislation in their state.
Senate Bill 5946, introduced this year by Sen. Joe McDermott (D-WestSeattle), would give high school and college students the right to freeexpression in school-sponsored media, limit administrative control over thecontent of student speech, and immunize schools and universities from liabilityfor content of student publications.
“This bill creates a reasonable and workable balance between therights of students to meaningfully express themselves and the need for schoolofficials to maintain an orderly learning environment,” said MikeHiestand, Student Press Law Center attorney, in his committee testimony.”Essentially it does nothing more than give student journalists back thesame protections their parents had before 1988.”
Prior to the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School Districtv. Kuhlmeier, which greatly increased administrative censorship authorityover many student publications, the Tinker standard applied to moststudent media. In the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community SchoolDistrict decision, the U.S. Supreme Court famously said students”do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech orexpression at the schoolhouse gate.” The ruling held that school officialscould not punish or prohibit student speech absent a reasonable belief that itwould result in material, substantial disruption of school activities or impedeupon others’ rights.
According to McDermott, who spoke at the hearing in defense of his bill, itis important for Washington to return those freedoms to its students.
“I think it’s important to not only educate our students but totrust them … and empower them with the rights and responsibilities that areentrusted to them in our Constitution,” McDermott said.
Not everyone at the hearing was in agreement with McDermott, though. JerryBender, director of governmental relations for the Association of WashingtonSchool Principals, expressed concern for schools that would be forced to dealwith consequences of their students’ editorial decisions despite nothaving oversight authority.
The bill’s defenders countered by pointing out that SB 5946 includesprovisions that absolve schools from liability, but the bill’s detractorsremained unconvinced that the extra freedoms for students is worth what they seeas added risk.
If both schools and parents are not liable for student speech, some argued,the victim of libelous content published in a student newspaper would have nomeans of recourse because students generally do not have the means to paydamages if successfully sued.
Hiestand responded that while this is probably true, it is not fair toattach a financial qualifier to free press rights. The First Amendment, hereminded senators, is intended to protect minority opinion, and”minorities often don’t have the kind of financial resources thatthe big boys have.”
If SB 5946 is passed, Washington will become the ninth state to adoptstudent free press legislation. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas,Massachusetts and Oregon all have laws restoring to high school and collegemedia the First Amendment protection that was reduced by Hazelwood.Illinois law provides similar protections for college student media.
Bill Will of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association concluded thetestimony, echoing what other bill supporters asserted throughout the hearing:”There is not a minimum age to exercise your First Amendmentrights.”
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