Washington Senate committee hears testimony on student press freedom legislation

WASHINGTON — A committee of state senators heard testimony from student journalists, high school advisers, free press advocates and school association officials on Thursday regarding student press freedom legislation for the Evergreen State.

The Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee hearing on the New Voices of Washington bill, which was introduced last week, largely showed support for increased student free speech and press rights in state high schools and colleges.

Senate Bill 6233 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, even if the school financially supports the media or it is produced as part of a class. The bill seeks to protect student journalists from censorship, reversing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave high school officials the right to censor school newspapers that are not public forums, as long as they can provide a “reasonable educational justification.”

The bill was introduced by the Senate Majority Floor Leader, Republican Sen. Joe Fain, and was co-sponsored by seven other state legislators — five Democrats and two Republicans, most of whom are on the education committee.

Among those who testified in support for the bill were representatives from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Washington State School Directors’ Association, Auburn High School newspaper adviser Thomas Custodio-Kaup, Mountlake Terrace High School journalism adviser Vince DeMiero and two high school student journalists.

The sole testimony in opposition of the bill was from the Association of Washington School Principals.

“This is more of a curricular issue than a free speech issue,” said Jerry Bender, AWSP governmental relations director, at the hearing. “The school district is the publisher and therefore should have some control over what is published, just like a publisher would with their editors and reporters.”

He said especially when journalism advisers are new, principals need to be involved in the publication process to ensure that published articles don’t have negative ramifications.

Jessica Vavrus, director of government relations for WSSDA, said the association is very supportive of K-12 students’ First Amendment rights, and the group believes this bill provides a clear foundation for those.

“[The association] notes that K-12 students operate in a different environment than higher education students and indeed adults,” Vavrus said at the hearing. “And we believe the U.S. Supreme Court case law on free speech in K-12 recognizes this.”

The association had a few stipulations attached to its support for the bill, such as eliminating obscene or profane expression and expression that advocates unlawful acts from the bill’s listed protections.

Mike Hiestand, a Washington resident and special project attorney for the Student Press Law Center who also testified at the hearing, said the support of WSSDA came as a surprise, and he thinks it will prove helpful in achieving the success of the legislation. He said the suggested tweaks won’t change the substance of the bill much.

Washington legislators have tried to pass similar legislation in the past, but have filed twice. In 2007, a bill to grant protections for public high school and college student journalists failed to earn a vote before the legislative session ended.

But this time, student press freedom legislation has been expanding throughout the country. In April, North Dakota unanimously passed a similar New Voices law prohibiting administrative censorship of journalism. Since then, volunteers in nearly 20 states have started campaigns to introduce similar legislation. Bills have already been filed in New Jersey,Missouri and Nebraska.

“It was evident before that this was a heavily partisan issue,” Hiestand said, adding that this time, the bipartisan support has made for a “less poisonous environment” for the bill, and he left the room feeling much better than in previous attempts.

“I can’t think of anything more nonpartisan than the American value of freedom of expression,” DeMiero said at the hearing. “It is, after all, in our First Amendment, and I think it’s in the first for a reason.”

The education committee is expected to vote on the bill soon, Hiestand said, and if it passes, the bill will go through a rules committee that will decide if the legislation will receive a full vote before the state Senate and House.

“We’re definitely at the beginning of the process,” Hiestand said. “But it’s a strong beginning.”

This story was originally published on www.splc.org.