Washington New Voices clears state Senate with strong bipartisan support

WASHINGTON—New Voices legislation is one step closer to becoming law in Washington state after senators voted Thursday to move the bill on to the House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 5064, which passed with a bipartisan 45-4 vote, grants student journalists at the high school and college levels 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.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Fain, R-Auburn, first introduced the legislation in January 2016 but due to a shortened session, it did not advance out of committee. In a press release, Fain said the legislation gives student journalists real-life experience without the fear of administrative censorship.

The bill’s passage through the Senate was marked by an attempt by Senator Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, to attach an amendment stating, “Political expression, including political campaigning, the endorsement of political candidates, or any other political activities, by students in school-sponsored media shall be deemed the use of public funds for political purposes…”

That amendment was withdrawn.

Kathy Schrier, the executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, has long advocated for student press protections, and she’s optimistic for this bill’s chances.

“Generally the House has been more inclined to like the bill, and we’ve always started in the House because we were pretty sure we would pass, there,” Schrier said. “The Senate was always our big worry. Well, now we’ve passed in the Senate with a clear majority and it’s bipartisan.”

Additionally, Sen. Fain brings Republican lawmakers to the table, and he’s put his full weight behind the New Voices bill. He produced a quick informational video on the bill for his “57 Seconds” legislation explainer series.

“Opportunities to practice journalism in school provide an incredible learning experience for young people to learn more about the issues that are important to them and increase the awareness of their peers,” Fain said in the press release. “Now more than ever some online outlets intentionally blur the lines between real reporting and fake news. We must ensure students have necessary backing to independently and responsibly practice their craft.”

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

The effort to pass comprehensive student press protections in the Evergreen State has been ongoing for a quarter century. Schirer credited Fern Valentine of the Journalism Education Association’s Press Rights Commission, who began this battle in 1992.

“We’ve been trying to do this for such a long time,” Schrier told SPLC, “And about eight years ago we tried it and we failed, and then Oregon took the language of our bill that failed and immediately passed it there, so that kind of hurt.”

The bill also extends protection to journalism advisers against retaliation and absolves school districts of liability for the content published by their students. In the press release, Thomas Kaup, student newspaper and yearbook adviser at Auburn High School in Fain’s district, said the Senate passage of the bill shows great strides for freedom of speech in the state.

“The Washington Senate, under the leadership of Senator Fain, has sent a clear message that this state is a champion of First Amendment rights for all of its citizens,” Kaup said. “Hopefully the House and the governor will make this a state government declaration that free speech is welcome and nourished in the state of Washington. Students learn by doing, not by just being told. These students will learn how to produce and understand real news and real facts, which will make them better citizens who know their First Amendment rights.”

On the passage of the bill, Schrier said “Tom was in tears. I mean, if it hadn’t been for Tom, none of this would have happened. It was Tom who invited Senator Fain to just come visit his classroom one day, and that’s where it all began. Senator Fain got suddenly really interested in the whole idea that students should have First Amendment rights.”

“He’s just been such a great advocate,”

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

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