Student press rights bills in Washington, Missouri voted out of state committees

Two New Voices bills were passed out of their state committees this week, signaling a step forward for legislation that would protect free speech rights and press rights for student journalists.

The bills, introduced in Washington and Missouri, would both protect high school and college student journalists’ right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is produced as part of a class or paid for by the school.

“I think there’s been a renewed attention to issues of free speech,” said Washington State Sen. Joe Fain, who introduced the student press freedom legislation earlier this year. The bill passed the Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education by a 6-2-1 vote on Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate’s rules committee.

Meanwhile, in an unanimous decision, Missouri legislators on the House Emerging Issues Committee approved the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act Wednesday. The legislation will now go to the rules committee as a consent bill, which gives “expedited treatment of bills of a non-controversial nature,” according to Missouri House of Representatives legislative process.

Robert Bergland, a journalism professor at Missouri Western State University and an organizer of the New Voices of Missouri campaign, said he was thrilled to hear of the legislators’ support of the bill.

“I hope that it’s able to sail through the legislative process,” Bergland said.

Bergland said there is a favorable environment for freedom of the press issues in the state right now, after the University of Missouri in November made national headlines when a professor tried to block student photojournalists from documenting a public protest.

Legislators heard testimony in support of the bill earlier in the week from student journalists, free speech advocates and student newspaper advisers. Nobody spoke in opposition to the bill at the hearing.

In Washington, representatives from the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association and the Washington State School Directors’ Association gave testimony in support of the legislation, along with a number of newspaper advisers and student journalists.

A representative from the Association of Washington School Principals gave the sole opposing testimony to the bill, arguing the school district acts as a publisher and should have some control over what is published.

“I can’t think of anything more bipartisan than protecting people’s First Amendment rights,” said Vince DeMiero, a journalism adviser at Mountlake Terrace High School who recently testified in support of the bill.

The bill would also protect student media at public higher education institutions from mandatory prior review by school officials and would protect student media advisers at the high school and college level from discipline for refusing to suppress student journalists’ right to free expression.

Both bills aim to restore many of the free speech protections for student journalists removed in the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The case, which originated from a Missouri high school, gave school officials the ability to censor school newspapers for any reasonable educational justification.

The bills do not authorize student expression that is libelous, invades privacy, violates state or federal law or incites students to create a clear and present danger to break laws or violate school regulations.

In Washington, DeMiero said the bill could face some opposition in the rules committee, although he is optimistic due to the bipartisan support of the bill in committee and Fain’s energetic support for the topic. DeMiero said the bill does not support or reject liberal or conservative ideas, but is about protecting student journalists’ free speech rights.

Fain said he is working to address some of the concerns held by other legislators who have seen controversies arise due to articles published in student newspapers.

Thomas Kaup, a journalism teacher at Auburn High School in Washington, said passing the legislation would send a strong message to student journalists that the state guarantees their voices and their constitutional rights.

In a Title I school like Auburn, which has a majority of students on free or reduced price lunch, Kaup said the ability for students to tell their own stories and speak the truth as they see it is a powerful right.

By sponsoring the bill, Fain, who is the Senate Majority Floor Leader, said he hopes to see more schools adopt programs like what he has seen at Auburn High School. He said journalism can teach students valuable life skills, such as how to communicate effectively, use good judgement and be sensitive to both sides.

This recent effort is not the first time Washington legislators have tried to pass legislation protecting free speech rights for student journalists. In 2007, a press freedom bill died in the state Senate after it passed through the House. A near identical bill was reintroduced in 2008 in the Senate, but died in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee when legislators did not have a hearing on the bill.

But now, about 20 states have their own campaigns to pass New Voices legislation and two other states — Nebraska and New Jersey — have introduced similar free speech legislation as part of the nationwide New Voices campaign led by the Student Press Law Center. The momentum was sparked by the unanimous passage of a New Voices bill in North Dakota last year.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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