Student press freedom legislation introduced in Minnesota and Michigan

In the same week that U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota took to the Senate floor to advocate for student journalists’ free speech rights, two states joined the growing movement to pass legislation for student press freedom — Minnesota and Michigan.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Michigan introduced New Voices legislation, Senate Bill 848, that would provide First Amendment protection for student journalists in public schools and colleges. The bill would protect student journalists’ right 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.

According to the bill, student journalists are to be responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature and advertising content of school-sponsored media, unless such material is libelous, an invasion of privacy, a violation of the law or incites students to create a clear and present danger. It also prohibits school officials from exercising prior restraint over student media and would protect student media advisers from retaliatory punishment.

Senate Bill 848 — introduced by Republican Sens. Rick Jones, Patrick Colbeck and Tom Casperson and Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda — was referred to the Committee on Judiciary.

Jones, the bill’s main sponsor, said he was approached by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association and Michigan State University students advising him to address the problem of censorship on college campuses. He said he was asked if he has any interest in assisting them in protecting the freedom of speech for students, to which he responded, “I certainly do.”

“What this bill would do is guarantee [that] students who want to be future journalists have their rights protected,” Jones said.

Jeremy Steele, executive director of MIPA who has been running the New Voices of Michigan campaign, said the patchwork of legal cases about First Amendment rights of students and the responsibility of school officials to protect students from harm has created a “confusing environment full of legal traps for both sides.”

“[Senate Bill 848] sets a standard for public schools and colleges in Michigan that’s easy to understand,” Steele said. “And it strikes a balance between the responsibilities of school officials and the need to teach young people about the importance of being civically engaged.”

He said the legislation would provide needed clarity about the First Amendment rights and responsibilities of student journalists at both the scholastic and collegiate levels.

“The more we educate lawmakers and the public about the consequences of the current mishmash of case law, the more people understand the need for the simple, clear legislation,” Steele said.

Senate Bill 848 will have a hearing with the Committee on Judiciary in three weeks, Jones said.

In Minnesota, Democratic Rep. Cheryl Youakim introduced a similar New Voices bill after the state’s legislature reconvened its regular session on Tuesday.

Minnesota’s bill, House File 2537, would extend to student journalists — in kindergarten through grade 12 — 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 bill would also require each school district to adopt a policy that would protect student journalists from prior restraint by school officials or discipline after publication — but gives school officials the ability to limit student expression if it is profane, harassing, threatening or intimidating.

House File 2537 was referred to the Education Innovation Policy Committee.

Youakim was not immediately available for comment. It’s unclear why the protection wasn’t extended to college student journalists.

Minnesota and Michigan are the latest to join the growing wave of states with student press freedom legislation in motion. There are about 20 state campaigns so far, including active ones in Illinois, Rhode Island, Maryland, Nebraska (which only covers college student journalists) and Missouri.

Some of the bills have seen progress in their respective legislatures. The Maryland bill was just passed by the Senate Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee and will advance in the Senate. The Missouri bill, which has passed through two committees, will be on the House floor next week for a vote.

“Student journalists will inevitably make mistakes,” The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead wrote in an opinion piece in support of Minnesota’s New Voices bill. “But they learn from their errors, and go on to become more engaged and better informed citizens and community leaders.”

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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