Maryland Senate passes student press freedom legislation

MARYLAND — Just days after a New Voices bill passed the Missouri House floor, the Old Line State became the second state this week to see student press freedom legislation clear a major hurdle.

On Friday, the Maryland Senate heard the third reading of the bill and voted 36-10 to pass the anti-censorship legislation, 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 financially supports the media or if the publication is produced as part of a class. The New Voices bill, which was introduced by Democratic Sen. Jamie Raskin, would protect student journalists from prior restraint by school officials and would protect student media advisers from retaliatory punishment.

There was some controversy among legislators during the bill’s second reading, said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which has supported the legislation.

Sen. Stephen Hershey, a Republican, was concerned the bill would open the door for an “unscrupulous” journalism adviser to be able to influence student journalists instead of just supporting them, she said.

Hershey introduced amendments to the bill that would prohibit student media advisers from using their position to influence a student journalist to promote an official position of the school.

The amendments were adopted and passed without much comment, Snyder said.

The bill is now headed to the House Ways & Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Sheila Hixson. Hixson is from the same county as Raskin, so the legislation is “going to someone who understands the bill and likes it,” Snyder said.

There is no House sponsor for the legislation yet, Snyder said.

“That just means legislators aren’t quite sure where they stand on it — [but] having it pass out of the Senate definitely makes legislators feel more comfortable,” she said.

The bill has racked up endorsements from the editorial pages of professional and student newspapers in the state.

“There’s an urgent consensus that young people are entering the electorate under-prepared to take ownership of their democracy — and Maryland’s legislature has a chance to enact a proven civics-education reform that costs zero dollars,” wrote Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, in a column for the Baltimore Sun. “The bottom line: Schools that respect student voices produce civically engaged graduates.”

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education has opposed the bill. Snyder said she is working with association representatives to help them understand what the bill will do.

“Sometimes people feel like this is so radical, but when you come down to it, that was the law of the land for many years,” she said.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court slashed protections for student journalists in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, by giving school administrators the power to censor school newspapers without specific policies listing them as public forums if they have a reasonable educational justification.

Now, a year after North Dakota passed a New Voices bill that reverses the effects of Hazelwood in public schools and colleges in the state, a national campaign has formed, with about 20 states exploring student press freedom legislation.

In addition to Maryland and the Missouri bill, which passed the House this week and now moves on to the state Senate, there are active New Voices bills in Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska.

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614. 

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