WASHINGTON — The Washington State Senate Majority Floor Leader’s visit to a high school newspaper in October was more eventful than most classroom visits tend to be. The senator, Joe Fain, talked to each of the journalism students and looked at their articles — and then he talked to their adviser, Thomas Custodio-Kaup, about passing student press freedom legislation in the Evergreen State.
When Custodio-Kaup reached out to the state senator’s chief of staff soon after to follow up on that conversation, he learned that Fain had already started research. And on Tuesday, the day after the state legislature’s short session started, Custodio-Kaup learned that Fain had introduced a student press freedom bill.
The bill would give students at both public high schools and colleges in the state the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, whether or not the school financially supports the media or if it is produced as part of a class. The bill would grant student editors editorial and advertising responsibility and explicitly protect student media advisers from retaliation for the students’ content.
Fain, a Republican, is the lead sponsor on the bill, and seven other state senators of both parties have already signed on to co-sponsor the legislation. Fain did not respond to requests for comment.
“He’s a really good, open-minded person, and he really believes in students and helping students,” Custodio-Kaup said.
Custodio-Kaup said the school he teaches at, Auburn High School, is a Title I school, with the majority of students receiving free or reduced lunch. That makes it more important, he said, for the state to tell these students that their voices are important and protected.
“The only thing many of our students have is their voice,” he said. “They don’t have much — some of them don’t even have homes — but they have their voices.”
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Steve Litzow, is the chairman of the Senate’s early learning & K-12 education committee, which Fain also serves on. The bill was referred to the committee and now awaits a hearing. The legislature’s session is just 60 days and ends on March 10.
Washington legislators have tried to pass similar legislation in the past before and failed. In 2007, a similar bill to grant protections for public high school and college student journalists failed to earn a vote before the legislative session ended.
This time, however, student press freedom legislation has been sweeping the country. In April, North Dakota unanimously passed a law prohibiting administrative censorship of student journalism. Since then, volunteers in about 20 states have launched campaigns to introduce similar anti-censorship legislation. So far, bills have been filed in New Jersey, Missouri and Nebraska (where the legislation’s protections are limited to college student journalists).
Custodio-Kaup said at Auburn High School, the high school newspaper is considered an open forum and there is no prior review of articles. He reviews the students’ final drafts for libel or other legal issues.
“I don’t even know what their articles are [at first],” he said. “I let them develop them. The student editor truly is empowered.”
In 2008, a Washington high school newspaper, the JagWire, published a series of articles about teen oral sex, including interviews with students about their experiences with oral sex. The families of the students who were quoted sued the Puyallup School District, arguing that the paper published “private details” about the students without their consent. The JagWire held that the reporter clearly identified herself and offered to let the students request anonymity, but they declined.
The district court jury ruled in favor of the student journalists, saying that they had acted appropriately and the students quoted had given their consent to be included. But the families appealed the ruling, arguing that the school district’s policy of allowing the JagWire to operate as an “open forum” for student expression was negligent. The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of the student newspaper, and the Washington Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
Still, in response to the lawsuit, the school district approved a new policy allowing prior review of student publications. The JagWire is no longer an open forum.
Custodio-Kaup said the school district actually made itself more liable for future articles by having a prior review system.
“With the student press rights bill, it’s clear that student editors make decisions on what the content is,” he said.
SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.