After 25 years, Arizona legislature votes to secure free press rights for students

ARIZONA—It was 25 years in the making, but student press protections finally passed the Arizona legislature Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1384 sailed through the Arizona Senate on a unanimous vote, bringing New Voices legislation to the governor’s desk in the Grand Canyon State. The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, was ecstatic over the result.

Yee, a former journalist and cartoonist on her high school newspaper, ran an article discussing drug deals conducted in her high school parking lot, complete with a caricature of her principal. That principal censored the article, and the event inspired then-Sen. Stan Furman to sponsor a student press freedom bill.

Yee testified in favor of that bill in 1992 before a committee on which she would one day serve as chair.

“It’s such an exciting day. It took 25 years to get here,” Yee told the SPLC.

The unanimous Senate vote followed a tighter, but still decisive, House vote Monday evening, where some representatives voiced their fears of free speech abuses.

Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, took issue with the contention that the bill would protect students voicing conservative values.

“I am rising to oppose this bill because I believe there is a huge potential for unintended consequences,” Stringer said in explaining his ‘no’ vote. “The sponsor of this bill spoke before the Education Committee, and I believe she sincerely believes that there are many conservative voices in our public school that are being silenced, and I think that’s her basic intent here. But that’s not my experience that our public schools are full of conservative voices that are being silenced.”

“So, I’d ask you to ask yourselves, is that your experience? You think our public schools are full of conservative faculty and conservative students that are being repressed and silenced? So, I submit that the more likely consequence is exactly the opposite of what the sponsor of this bill intends.”

Whether the suppression of voices based on ideology tilts for liberal or conservative students, Arizona schools have been known to censor articles for everything from complaints over dress code enforcement to investigative stories on teacher assessments to the bathroom sink. One school went so far as to redact “unacceptable” senior yearbook quotes – by hand – before distributing them.

Stringer went on to argue that the bill provides more protections for student journalists than exist for professional journalists. The representative claimed that SB 1384 would, by constraining the censorship discretion of school authorities, leave students operating without any editorial supervision.

But Paula Casey, the executive director of the Arizona Newspaper Association and one of the driving proponents of the bill, said that argument misconceives how student newsrooms operate and how laws such as SB 1384 have worked in practice elsewhere.

“We had a few legislators that were pressured by their individual school districts to vote no,” said Casey, who has worked with the Arizona Interscholastic Press Association frequently over her 21-year career at ANA. “They felt like it was going to be a catastrophe in the waiting, but any of the legislators that spoke against it really don’t understand how student publications work. That they still have an editor, they still have to answer to the adviser – the teacher – in the classroom.”

More crucially – in addition to libel, slander and invasion of privacy – the bill leaves unprotected any speech that violates state or federal laws, incites illegal actions, or “…materially and substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the public school, community college or university.”

Additionally, amendments made in the House Education Committee allowed local school boards to write explicit prohibitions against any speech that is lewd or obscene, and required that school publications policies “shall include a student journalist code of ethics that includes guidelines for covering content in a responsible, fair and accurate manner.”

No professional journalist is statutorily restricted from lewd or obscene language in such a manner, so the protections of SB 1384 are in fact narrower than what the First Amendment protects in non-student media.

For Sen. Yee, these concessions for local school board control were crucial to the bill’s viability and efficacy.

“Arizona’s law is unique from any other,” Yee said. “because we have local control in local school boards. So, we really honored that in this bill.”

Working with stakeholders and respecting existing laws, she says, makes better legislation.

Still, Stringer wasn’t the only House member to warn of dire consequences. In his explanation Monday evening, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, reiterated his colleague’s dire warnings.

“Members, I can tell you that this is well-intentioned, but this is well-intention gone amok,” Farnsworth said on the floor of the House. “Because… this is so much broader than the concept of free speech. This is so much broader than the First Amendment, this is essentially saying that the burden for any restriction with the exception of those three [unprotected categories] is on the school.”

House members weren’t all so vocal in opposition. Rep. Ray Martinez, D-Phoenix, stood to remind everyone of the impactful work done by students everywhere.

“I take notice that a high school journalism team in Kansas started doing an inquiry on the new principal that they received,” Martinez said. “and learned that that principal did not have the credentials to be their principal and soon afterward resigned.”

“So, I think there’s a lot of young folks out there have a lot of talent and I think that’s where good journalism comes from.”

The House ultimately passed the bill 41-19. The unanimous Senate vote was a ratification of the amendments made in the House. Its passage was accompanied by Yee reading minutes of the committee meeting where she provided testimony on similar legislation 25 years prior – as a censored student journalist.

Members, it was 25 years ago that I first came to The Arizona State Capitol to testify on a bill about the importance of exercising our First Amendment rights to the fullest extent. The bill, back then, was a bipartisan effort, as it has been today. First Amendment rights should not be about whether you are a conservative or a liberal. Our founders gave us these free speech rights because our country was founded on freedom.

The experience in testifying before the Senate Education Committee 25 years ago and seeing a bill I helped inspire pass with bipartisan support, I believe, was the single experience that secured in my mind, that we truly are a citizen government; and that ultimately took me on a path towards public policy. I learned that we can be any age and come from any neighborhood and truly play a significant part of the process in making laws.

You can read the 1992 committee minutes featuring high school senior Yee, starting on page 12, here.

Both Senator Yee and Paula Casey have advice, born of hard-earned experience, for any students or instructors looking to pass a student free press law in their state. For her part, Yee cites the multitude of legislatures that have passed similar laws – now standing at 12 after Vermont’s passage last week. Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia provide administrative rules within their boards of education protecting student press freedom.

“It goes to say that you’ve got to have a sponsor that believes in it,” Casey said. “In Senator Yee, we had that.”

“The ball has definitely gotten rolling since 1992,” Yee said. “What I would recommend for states that have not yet considered it is absolutely take a look at the laws that are in place and to develop a student free speech law that works for your state.”

Furthermore, Casey said that stakeholder involvement is absolutely crucial, as the state Boards of Regents and school boards remained neutral on the bill. Her point can be illustrated further by the experience of proponents who worked in parallel on a similar New Voices bill in Indiana with far different results.

There, the sponsor employed a comprehensive plan to involve professional administrative associations in the bill’s drafting. Ultimately, those groups’ refusal and continued opposition killed the bill.

For Casey, informed speech is the crucial groundwork for securing free speech.

“It’s really just a matter of having those relationships with legislators to be able go in there and explain what the bill actually does. Most of the people that spoke out on the floor in the House were people that don’t have any clue what the bill does.”

As an involved sponsor, SB-1384 holds considerable weight in Senator Yee’s legislative career.

“I have carried a lot of bills over the years as a House member and now a Senate member,” Yee said. “but this is one bill that I truly know inside and out and I’ve lived it not only from the perspective of a student journalist and cartoonist who was censored and who went before a Senate Education Committee – for which now I serve on as a Senator and for which I was a Senate Committee chairman.”

“And so really it has been full circle, and it really does show that with true effort and with a lot of bipartisan teamwork, really we can get a good product.”

That pragmatic optimism bore fruit Tuesday when Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, read the final tally:

“By a vote of 29 ‘ayes,’ zero ‘nays’ and one not voting, you have passed, after 25 years, Senate Bill 1384.”

SPLC Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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