New Voices bill reintroduced in Washington state legislature

WASHINGTON — After their efforts fizzled out at the end of the 2016 legislative session, legislators in Washington state on Tuesday reintroduced a bill that would provide greater protection for both high school and college journalists.

Senate Bill 5064 is a continuation of the New Voices of Washington bill introduced by Republican Joe Fain in January 2016. In an effort to prevent censorship, the bill grants student journalists the ability to exercise freedom of the press regardless of whether the publication is sponsored by the school, uses school facilities, or is part of a class.

The bill made it through the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee last year before being held up in the Rules Committee. After Fain reintroduced the bill Tuesday, four additional senators cosponsored the bill — bringing the total sponsors to 14 — and it was again referred to the Education Committee.

Fain could not be immediately reached for comment about the legislation.

Five of the seven members on the committee are cosponsoring the bill, which seems to indicate the legislation will, at the very least, move on to the next step of the legislative process.

Kathy Schrier, director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said she is more hopeful about the potential passage of the legislation this time around.

“This time we are much more optimistic because it’s a much longer session this time. The Rules Committee was under a lot of pressure [at the end of last session] to push through the things they felt were urgent,” she said. “In our estimation we were urgent, but not in theirs.”

The Washington legislature meets for 60 days in even-numbered years, and 105 days in odd-numbered years, such as 2017, when they debate the state’s budget.

Schrier said the legislation – which, if passed would make Washington the eleventh state to protect both high school and college journalists from censorship by means of legislation – is crucial to promoting a culture of openness and transparency.

“Our schools are supposed to be teaching students how to live in a democracy and be civically engaged. They’re not doing their job if they’re suppressing student voices,” she said.

The states of Washington and Pennsylvania currently have statutes in their state education codes which protect student speech rights for high school students, but the new Washington legislation would strengthen those protections and expand them to college media.

Additionally, SB 5064 extends protection to journalism advisers against retaliation and absolves school districts of liability for the content published by their students. The law does not protect speech that is libelous, invades personal privacy, or “materially and substantially” disrupts school operations.

More specifically, the bill states, “A school official must base a forecast of material and substantial disruption on specific facts, including past experience in the school and current events influencing student behavior, and not on undifferentiated fear or apprehension.”

When the bill was first seen in committee last year, it faced blowback from the Association of Washington School Principals. ASWP Governmental Relations Director Jerry Bender testified at the time, saying the bill goes too far in taking decision-making power away from school officials, whom the association equates to the publishers at professional news outlets.

“The school district is the publisher and therefore should have some control over what is published, just like a publisher would with their editors and reporters,” he said.

Schrier disagreed with this line of thinking, saying it is abundantly clear in the First Amendment that to have a free press, government agencies cannot be publishing agents.

“We always stress that in a public school, they can’t be the publisher because they’re government officials and the First Amendment applies to students in schools based on the Tinker decision. There are very strict guidelines with where censorship can occur,” she said. “We stress the importance of open student forum so administrators are protected from litigation if they allow students to make content decisions.”

A committee hearing on SB 5064 is scheduled for Jan. 19. Should the bill advance, Schrier said complete passage of the legislation could come as soon as April.

SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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