Student press freedom supporters testified in support of Maryland New Voices bill

Student press freedom is on the table before Maryland representatives, who heard testimony this week on a ‘New Voices’ bill that has already passed the state Senate.

The anti-censorship bill 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 legislation would also protect student journalists from prior restraint by school officials and would protect student media advisers from retaliatory punishment.

The bill was introduced by Democratic Sens. Jamie Raskin and Jim Rosapepe.

Earlier this month, the Maryland Senate voted 36-10 to pass the legislation, with an amendment introduced on the floor that would prohibit student media advisers from using their position to influence a student journalist to promote an official position of the school.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee heard testimony in support of the legislation from Raskin, Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and Gary Clites, president of the Maryland-D.C. Scholastic Press Association.

Raskin, who wrote a book about students’ constitutional rights, criticized the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which allows school officials to censor school-sponsored student media with any reasonable educational justification.

“[With that decision], student press lost a lot of ground,” Raskin said. “And for those of us who are lovers of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, that in itself is a problem enough. Then in the age of the internet, it became a much more serious problem.”

On the internet, he said, students are not held accountable for what they write.

“Kids are not learning from a journalism adviser or English teacher about how to develop real journalistic responsibility and journalistic sophistication,” Raskin said. “Instead they just go on a website and trash someone. And that’s at a time when the press itself, as everyone knows, is under severe pressure — lots of newspapers are closing, and in some communities, the high school newspaper is actually an important journalistic outlet.”

Snyder said for the press association, creating a “common-sense clear policy across the state” is a workforce development issue.

“We need students who think critically, ask questions and are unafraid to pursue difficult stories,” she said.

John Woolums, the director of governmental relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, gave the sole testimony in opposition to the bill. Woolums didn’t testify during the Senate committee hearing, but submitted written testimony.

Woolums said the association is strongly opposed to the half of the bill that relates to high school journalists and their student media advisers. It makes the authority of the school system “far too narrow,” he said.

There is some content that is not necessarily profane, he said, but would be “vulgar, lewd and obscene” in the eyes of school administrators — and they should have the right to prohibit the publication of that content, he said. The bill would also allow students to determine the advertising content of the newspaper, which Woolums said could lead to inappropriate ads.

“I will suggest the tattoo parlor, and you can let your imagination run from there to what other advertising content some middle schoolers and high schoolers think would be neat and fun and pushing the envelope, if you will, in their school newspaper,” he said.

Woolums also said he was concerned about the section of the bill that would prohibit retaliation against student media advisers, because it was “out of sync” with the collective bargaining rights for all school employees.

The representatives on the committee asked several questions of both Raskin and Woolums. Several representatives voiced concern about what they said was a climate of censorship on college campuses, consisting of microaggressions and a lack of diversity of thought.

“I oppose all forms of political correctness,” Raskin said, adding this legislation is meant “to give young people the opportunity to express their point of view, no matter what it might be, and not have them be victimized by censorship — whether it’s left-wing censorship, right-wing censorship, theocratic censorship, or just the president not wanting criticism of the college or a school principal not wanting criticism of a school policy.”

Clites said this legislation would eliminate the vagueness of the Hazelwood decision and “give everyone a clear blueprint” — student journalists would know what is appropriate to write about and school administrators would know when it was appropriate for them to stop the distribution of the publication in school or censor articles.

But Woolums said school administrators have been working under theHazelwood standard for almost three decades.

“There is the sense that this legislation is responding to an immediate and profound concern,” he said. “It’s really this bill and this approach that’s brand new to us, and not the status of the law.”

Now, the committee members will vote on the legislation before it can advance to the House floor. The House Appropriations Committee will next meet on Friday.

The New Voices movement has taken root in about 20 states, with active bills in Missouri, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska.