N.D. bill to protect student journalists' freedom of speech amended in committee

NORTH DAKOTA — A bill intended to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists in North Dakota passed in a House committee on Tuesday with a favorable recommendation following several amendments.

The bill, which Rep. Alex Looysen, a Republican, introduced on Jan. 19, would protect both students at public K-12 institutions and colleges. The legislation would enhance students’ freedom of expression in school-sponsored media regardless of school funding, preventing administrators from invoking the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier precedent.

The law would allow student journalists to print “what some people might think is controversial content, which is definitely necessary in the student journalism process,” Looysen said. Looysen said the bill faced little opposition during the committee process and that he expects the bill to pass in both the House and the Senate by mid-April.

Changes made during Tuesday’s House Education Committee meeting included removing fortified press freedoms for students attending private colleges. Private colleges, which are not subject to the First Amendment, objected to state regulation and persuaded legislators to remove them from the measure, H.B. 1471. Only one state, California, has laws guaranteeing press freedom for students at private institutions.

Another amendment clarifies that schools and colleges do not have jurisdiction to regulate students’ independent journalistic work outside of curricular school publications.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, the state’s largest daily newspaper, endorsed the legislation in an editorial on Wednesday.

“It is especially important for student journalists to learn the craft without burdensome constraints, according to the editorial. “The best student newspapers are free to pursue journalism that informs, inspires and sometimes digs deep into matters that might embarrass a particular school.”

In the 1988 Hazelwood ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators could censor school-sponsored newspapers not designated as a public forum for student expression.

In essence, the legislation would ensure student journalists have the same First Amendment protections as other students under the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court ruling, which held students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The ruling said school officials could not punish or prohibit student speech unless it causes a substantial disruption of normal school activities or invades the rights of others.

Free Speech activist Mary Beth Tinker, a plaintiff in the 1969 Supreme Court case, testified before the House committee on Tuesday in Bismarck, as did Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte.

The legislation “is a fine example of civic action on the part of young people,” Tinker said in her testimony. “Students themselves identified a problem, proposed a solution and are seeking a change in public policy through the legislative process.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Elaina Koros by email or at (202) 974-6317.