Maryland House approves student press freedom bill, final vote expected soon

MARYLAND — The Old Line State might be the first state in the national New Voices movement to pass a student press freedom bill this year, as the legislation cleared the Maryland House and moves back to the Senate for final consideration.

On Thursday, the Maryland House voted 130-6 to pass the 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 legislation would also protect student journalists from prior restraint by school officials and would protect student media advisers from retaliatory punishment.

The Maryland Senate already approved the measure, by a 36-10 vote, on March 18. Since the bill was amended by state representatives, state senators will vote on the final bill once more. They have until Monday at midnight before the legislature’s session ends.

“There wasn’t anything [in the House debate] that says this will have a hard time going forward,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. “Hopefully [the Senate vote] is just a formality. But of course, anything can happen.”

If the state Senate approves the legislation, which was introduced by Democratic Sens. Jamie Raskin and Jim Rosapepe, it will go to the governor’s desk. Gov. Larry Hogan will then have 30 days to sign or veto the legislation. The bill would go into effect on October 1.

The legislation was amended several times. The current version of the bill prohibits student media advisers from using their position to influence a student journalist to promote an official position of the school. It also allows high school administrators to prohibit profane, vulgar, lewd or obscene language or language that has the intent to harass, threaten or intimidate.

That amendment was a compromise with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which opposed the bill. A representative from the association testified to the House Appropriations Committee that he was concerned the bill would narrow the authority of school administrators and open the door for inappropriate content in student publications, since the original version of the legislation simply limited protections for language that “may be defined as profane, harassing, threatening or intimidating.”

The bill prohibits content that is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates state or federal law or would lead to a material and substantial disruption of the school’s operation.

During the bill’s debate on the House floor, Republican Del. Trent Kittleman proposed an amendment, which was accepted, to strike some of the limitations on language for college student journalists — with the amendment, university administrators would not be able to limit language that is profane, vulgar, lewd or obscene.

Snyder said the amendments didn’t materially change the bill and she was comfortable with the end result.

Maryland’s legislative efforts are part of a national New Voices movement, with 20 states exploring similar student press freedom legislation. Missouri, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska and Alabama all have active bills.

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

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