Maryland legislators hear testimony in support of student press freedom legislation

As students roamed the halls of a Maryland Senate Office Building on Wednesday, speaking out about civic issues like an education credit or virtual learning, free press advocates testified in support of student journalists’ own ability to speak and report without the fear of administrative censorship.

The Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 764, which would grant high school and college student journalists the ability to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the school district financially supports the media or if the publication is produced as part of a class. The ‘New Voices’ bill would protect student journalists from prior restraint by school officials and would protect student media advisers from retaliatory punishment.

No one testified on Wednesday in opposition to the bill. Along with Sen. Jamie Raskin, the lead sponsor on the bill, three free speech advocates testified in support of the legislation — Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center and Karen Houppert, a journalist and the former adviser of Morgan State University’s student newspaper.

Student journalism, they all argued, is vital preparation for young people to be civically engaged and to learn the importance of the values of free speech.

“The student press has played a crucial role in training young people to be the journalists of the future, and training kids to have a critical frame of mind and be engaged in current events and the big questions of the times,” Raskin told committee members.

Raskin, the Democratic Senate Majority Whip who has a freedom of speech poster hanging in his office and was the editor of his high school paper, has written a book about students’ constitutional rights — “We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students.” He criticized the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which allows school officials to censor school-sponsored student media with any reasonable educational justification, to committee members.

“That decision was a major setback for student journalism, and I would argue journalism generally, and the cause of free speech and free expression in society,” he said.

This legislation, he said, would restore the Tinker standard in Maryland schools, which gives students the right to free speech and free expression in schools, unless school officials can clearly demonstrate the speech will result in a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities or invade the rights of others.

With the rise of social media and the internet, there’s now a sense of urgency to restoring the Tinker standard, Raskin said. By censoring student speech in schools, he said, administrators are driving it out of schools and onto the internet, where there’s no accountability or adult supervision.

“By standing up for greater freedom in schools, we’ll be standing up for greater responsibility and a better dialogue between young people and their teachers and their journalism advisers when we invite [the speech] back into the school context rather than the wild west of the internet,” he said.

Snyder said the Press Association considers this to be a workforce development issue, because when students are speaking on social media rather than in the classroom, under the guidance of a trained educator or adviser, they aren’t learning how to be professional journalists.

“High school students are the journalists of tomorrow, and with the current state of affairs, students are taught not to question authority, not to probe deep into sensitive topics, not to engage in a clear dialogue that has strong journalistic ethical standards,” she said.

Houppert, who is now the editor of the Baltimore City Paper, said that when she was a journalism professor and adviser at Morgan State, she learned that even college students are often fearful of questioning authority. She said when student journalists at the Spokesman investigated sexual assault on campus, it took a lot of coaching to encourage them to challenge administrators and the university’s existing policies.

That left her conflicted throughout the semester, she said.

“I was proud of the great watchdog journalism my students were doing, but I also worried about the impact that expose would have on my own job at Morgan, where I was halfway through my tenure process,” she said. “I always juggled those two thoughts.”

Ultimately, she was not retaliated against, she said — “but I know there are lots of schools out there that aren’t that lucky.”

Recently in Maryland, Mount St. Mary’s University’s president fired the student newspaper adviser for the paper’s content — a story that uncovered the details of the president’s controversial retention plan and included the president’s quotes comparing struggling freshmen to bunnies that need to be drowned that quickly made national news. The president, who has now resigned, eventually reinstated the adviser as a professor at the university, but he did not regain his job advising the paper.

“Students really need protection from the administration’s authority on campuses,” Houppert said. “In order to learn what it means to be a journalist, and I would argue to be a member of a functioning democracy, they really need to practice real journalism, and real journalism requires free speech.”

Last year, North Dakota passed a similar ‘New Voices’ law to protect student journalists, making it the 10th state where student journalists are protected. LoMonte said that means one-third of school children in the United States are covered by ‘New Voices’ protection — it’s a proven model of student journalism that better serves the community, he said.

During the hearing, the legislators on the committee asked a few questions about the role of the school as publisher and the fact that a school-sponsored student newspaper is essentially a government publication.

In response, LoMonte compared a student newspaper to the microphone in the legislative committee hearing.

“Although the government pays for this building and the electricity and this microphone and this table, it would certainly be regarded as a violation of the First Amendment if the chair was to say, ‘Please only say positive things about the state government into the microphone. If we catch you criticizing the state government, we’ll disconnect you and turn the power off and have you removed,’” he said. “But that’s what’s going on in school districts today.”

The committee will now vote on the legislation. There are also similar bills pending in Illinois, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Missouri.

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