“We just need to turn up the volume:” A Q&A with the sponsor of the failed Washington New Voices bill

The Washington State New Voices student press freedom bill, which would have given students at public high schools and colleges the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, died in committee last week.

The bill, which passed through the Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education by a 6-2-1 vote, failed to make it out of the Senate Rules Committee before the deadline. Advocates have vowed to bring the bill back in the state legislature’s next session, which starts in January 2017.

Sen. Joe Fain, the bill’s main sponsor and the Republican Majority Floor Leader, said that while the bill’s failure was disappointing, he feels certain that the legislation can only benefit from having more time to grow its grassroots movement and address the concerns of its opposition.

One of the main concerns some legislators — including influential Democrat Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe — had about the legislation was that it could open the doors to legal trouble for schools over content in student newspapers. A few years ago, a Washington student newspaper, the JagWire, had published a series of articles about teen oral sex with quotes from several students about their experiences. The families of the students quoted sued the Puyallup School District, arguing that the paper had published “private details” about the students without their consent — despite the student reporter maintaining that she had clearly identified herself and offered to give the students anonymity, which they declined.

The district court jury had 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, the legal battle has made some state legislators apprehensive about more freedoms for student journalists.

The Student Press Law Center spoke to Fain about why the bill failed and his plans for next year. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

SPLC: Why didn’t the bill make it through this session?

Joe Fain: I think there was concern that the right people hadn’t been properly educated on it. Sometimes when you’re passing legislation, timing is just as important as the merits of the argument, so I have every expectation that I’ll reintroduce the bill next year and use some of the time available to us over the interim to have a bit more of a grassroots outreach to members of the legislature on why it’s important that we pass this law.

SPLC: Do you have any plans on what to do differently next session?

JF: I think the most important thing is that we just get more support. We had great support in some parts of the state from journalism teachers and students, and I think we just need to turn up the volume a little bit and get more students and teachers to reach out to their elected representatives over the summer months.

SPLC: Sen. McAuliffe recently told the SPLC that she could not support the bill because of the JagWire/Puyallup situation, and also said she could not support amendments to the bill because students either ‘have the rights or don’t.’ Do you think that Washington is ready for a New Voices bill after what happened in Puyallup and, if you do, how do you plan to convince legislators like Sen. McAuliffe?

JF: Well, I’m certainly open to any changes to the legislation that will bring more members on board, and there are always things we can do to make sure those outlier situations are addressed. The fundamental issue is that from a liability standpoint, districts and teachers are more protected under the legislation than they would be if it weren’t put into effect. Those schools that have put really tight restrictions on requiring pre-approval for things that are put into their journalistic publications have increased their legal liability, not decreased it. I think that’s an important fact for folks to know.

SPLC: During the committee hearing, the sole opposing testimony came from the Association of Washington School Principals, whose argument was that because the school district serves as the publisher, administrators should have some element of control over what is published in the school paper. What would your response be to those claims?

JF: First, I would say that their participation in the content – I don’t have any problem with prior review, and I don’t think any of the laws that have been passed around the United States have restricted prior review. A good journalism instructor is going to be taking an active role in looking at what their students are creating — not only for thinking through ideas of, is this the right thing to publish, is it interesting, is it grammatically correct? That’s all part of the education process.

The issue is eliminating that prior restraint, which is very different from prior review. If there are things that we need to do to beef up the qualifications of certain journalism instructors to help with professional development, to communicate about best practices, that’s something worth looking at. There are definitely varying degrees of quality in the journalism programs throughout the state. We had a couple of examples in committee with the instructor from Auburn as well as the instructor from [Mountlake Terrace] that came down to testify who represent some of the premier examples of how a student newspaper and journalism program should be run. If we need to take some of those lessons learned and best practices and spread them across the state as part of this legislation, I’d be willing to do that as well.

SPLC: This marks the third time in recent years that Washington legislators have tried to pass legislation against administrative censorship. Why do you think the legislation continues to be stalled or rejected and what can be done to ensure that future legislation does pass?

JF: Passing legislation is a lot about momentum and many, many big and significant pieces of legislation that have become law in Washington state, just like in other states, have taken multiple times that they’ve been introduced, and each time they’re introduced the legislative process starts working. What I mean by that is it becomes a topic of conversation, so more and more legislators learn more about the issue. The public gets better educated about the issue. Infirmities in the proposal get flushed out and addressed.

Sometimes the first version of a bill has a lot of problems with it and by the time you’re into that third version, you’ve dealt with a lot of the opposition and you’ve addressed a number of concerns. That’s how the process is supposed to work, so just because something has been introduced for multiple years doesn’t mean that it’s not on a successful path.

The most recent example that comes to mind is the transportation package that we had pass in Washington last year. It was the result of many, many years of negotiation. Multiple versions of the legislation had been introduced in the House and the Senate and had died over a period of years, but eventually there was enough of a desire to see something done and enough of a bipartisan commitment to completing it that it got across the finish line. This is certainly a much smaller scale than a statewide transportation package, but the analogy is still sound.

Getting more people educated on the issue takes multiple tries, and I think that there are now, as a result of this year, quite a few more legislators who are knowledgeable and supportive of the provision than we had in previous years, and I am hoping that that support will just snowball into the future.

SPLC staff writer Kelcey Caulder can be reached by email or at (202) 785-5451.

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