Vermont senator proposes student free expression law

VERMONT — A statesenator is hoping the second time’s the charm when it comes to student freeexpression legislation in Vermont.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, introduced a bill in January to guarantee free speech rights to public school students in the state. Whiteauthored a bill in 2005 to enhance student speech and press rights, but thelegislation died after several years in the Legislature. The 2012 bill iscurrently with the committee on education.

Senate Bill 120 provides that “a public school student shallhave freedom of expression in the public schools of the state, provided thatsuch expression shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.”

The bill is considerably shorter than the previouslegislation proposed by White. The 2005 bill specified that freedom of speechand press would apply to “ bulletin boards; the distribution of printedmaterials or petitions; the wearing of buttons, badges and other insignia; andexpression in school-sponsored publications and other news media whether thepublication or medium is supported financially by the school or by use ofschool facilities or is produced as part of a class.”

Other items removed from the bill include a series of specificexceptions for libelous, obscene and unlawful speech.

“It [the new bill] is cleaner and easier than the last bill.But the bill as introduced is never the bill that passes, as the committeemarks up the bill however they want,” White said.

White sees the legislation as a reinforcement of the Tinker standard, which allows schoolcensorship only to prevent a substantial disruption or an invasion of therights of others. Subsequent cases from the U.S. Supreme Court have curtailedthat standard.

Seven states have student free expression laws, includingMassachusetts, which has nearly identical language to the Vermont proposal.

“From what I understand, this bill is similar to the onepassed in Massachusetts,” White said.

Education committee member Sen. Philip Baruth said thecommittee heard Sen. White summarize her bill and he supports it, but can’sspeak for the rest of the committee. Baruth said the committee chairman has yetto schedule a hearing on the bill. Sen. Kevin Mullin, chair of the educationcommittee, could not be reached for comment.

“There was some concern voiced in the discussion abouttrying to enter into a principal’s say of his or her students,” Baruth said.“Did the legislature want to step into that arrangement and decorum of theprincipal-student relationship? There’s a very strong tradition in Vermont oflocal control and the idea that individual communities want to have control.”

Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont SchoolBoards Association, said his organization has not taken a position on the bill.

The newspaper adviser at Brattleboro Union High School, Nancy Olsen, workedwith White when she introduced the 2005 bill and thinks Vermont should go onrecord as supporting students’ freedom of expression rights.

Olsen said her school has its own student expression policythat leans more toward the Hazelwood standard,which allows administrators greater control over publications.

“Speaking for the policy in my own school, if this bill wereto pass and become law, it would guarantee more strongly that the principalwould not be able to control content of student media,” Olsen said. “The [existing]policy specifically states that student media is not a public forum, eventhough we’ve always acted like one.”

Olsen has just one concern with the bill: the phrase“expression shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.” Shesaid the phrase may leave some wiggle room for administrative control.

“I still think it’s an improvement versus what we have,”Olsen said.

At Middlebury Union High School, officials implemented a newpolicy for student publications in 2008 after a student’s name and quote were used stating he smoked marijuana before returning to class. Matthew Cox,journalism adviser at Middlebury, said his personal belief is that students shouldhave the freedom to speak, a view based on the real world conditions they willwork under later in the profession.

“Why would you subject students in high school to more restrictionson press freedoms than they face when they get out of school and practicejournalism professionally?” Cox said. “I came to teaching from practicingjournalism and prior review restrictions surprised me. I didn’t even know theyexisted.”

Helen Smith, executive director of the New EnglandScholastic Press Association, agrees with Olsen that the bill would be animprovement.

“The most important thing is for kids to take responsibilityfor their own expression and not have somebody tell them what they can andcannot say,” Smith said. “It [free speech] isn’t only about newspapers and newspublications. It’s about cheerleading, about what posters you put up…it’s notjust about what you put up online or in the yearbook.”