Maryland legislature passes student press freedom bill

MARYLAND — The state legislature gave final approval to a student press freedom bill this weekend, sending the anti-censorship legislation to the governor’s desk.

On Saturday, the state Senate voted 37-9 to concur with the House amendments and give final approval to 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.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, who introduced the legislation, posted on Facebook celebrating the bill’s victory.

“This is important protection for student journalists and their advisers and will help us recruit and train the next generation of journalists. We need their skills,” he wrote. “Remember what [Thomas] Jefferson said: ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The House had voted 130-6 to pass the bill on Thursday, after adding amendments that would allow high school administrators to limit profane, vulgar, lewd or obscene language or language that has the intent to harass, threaten or intimidate. The bill also 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.

A Senate amendment added in March prevents student media advisers from using their position to influence a student journalist to promote an official position of the school.

“To see the progress we made and everything that has happened, it’s one of the most exciting things that has happened in my educational career,” said Gary Clites, president of the Maryland-D.C. Scholastic Press Association and a high school journalism teacher who has led the New Voices of Maryland campaign.

“When we started this whole thing, I thought it was a long shot that we could take it all the way through the legislature,” he said. “Now we just have to get the governor on our side.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has 30 days from Saturday to sign or veto the legislation. The bill would go into effect on October 1.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said it’s unclear where Hogan stands on the legislation. But Clites said he is optimistic, since Hogan announced that education would be his number one priority this year.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Clites said. “I’m about as happy as I could be.”

Inspired by North Dakota’s passage of a similar ‘New Voices’ bill last year, about 20 states are exploring similar student press freedom legislation. Maryland is the first state this year to pass a New Voices bill through the legislature.

Missouri, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska and Alabama all have active bills. Missouri is the state behind Maryland with the most progress — its state House passed the bill last month by a 131-12 vote, and the Senate Education Committee has a hearing on the bill scheduled for Wednesday.

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