Legislation would protect student speech and schools

Editorial Originally Published in The Everett Herald 

Freedom of expression is perhaps the most fundamental, non-partisan value we hold dear as citizens. The most clear and thoughtful legislation in the country regarding freedom of expression rights and responsibilities for students in our public high schools and colleges has been introduced by state Sen. Joe Fain, Auburn, and co-sponsored by leaders from both sides of the aisle.

The time to pass Senate Bill 6233 is now.

Specifically, the bill addresses the misunderstanding and misapplication of the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier U.S. Supreme Court ruling. While it clarifies the rights of public school students, it also reaffirms their responsibilities and reasonable legal limitations. Equally important, the legislation protects taxpayers, school districts, school officials and educators from liability associated with such student expression.

But let’s be clear about the facts: While there may be a perception that school districts face liability issues related to student expression and student media, there is no evidence to support that thinking. The truth is that no court has ever found a school district liable for content published by students in their student media. However, it is true that many districts and school officials have been successfully sued for infringing on student rights. Again, the bill would clarify these issues and preempt such legal action.

This legislation is absolutely necessary. As a former president of the Washington Journalism Education Association and as a member of the national Scholastic Press Rights Commission, I hear from dozens of my colleagues and their students each year who find themselves in conflict with school officials over legal or policy issues. Likewise, I also hear from school officials and district risk management personnel who want to protect the rights of students, but also have an obligation to protect the educational environment in their schools while preventing potential litigation against their districts. The wasteful hours and lost resources addressing these conflicts would be eliminated by this law.

Under Senate Bill 6233 all public school officials, board members, building administrators — and therefore taxpayers — would not be held liable for student publications and broadcasts so long as school officials conduct themselves in an educationally sound and lawful manner. And the legislation makes clear that student media advisers like me would no longer have to fear for our jobs because we believe it’s best practice to educate and advise student journalists rather than censor them.

Under the bill, all of our public high school and college student journalists would be acknowledged for the critically important work they do in maintaining a vibrant democracy in this state and country. But, regardless of what you might hear from some opponents of this bill, it does not grant student journalists special privileges. In fact, student rights would revert to the Tinker v. Des Moines standard established by the Supreme Court in 1969 — rights that their parents and grandparents enjoyed.

Article 1, Section 5 of the Washington State Constitution reads: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.” More specifically, Section 2 of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 390-400-215 states: “All students possess the constitutional right to freedom of speech and press.” Senate Bill 6233 would reaffirm these rights, specify student responsibilities, and clarify the role and limited liability of school officials.

Clearly it’s a win-win for all involved.