NEWS RELEASE: Colorado expands student press freedom; protects advisers


Contact: Hillary Davis, New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer

Governor Jared Polis has signed into law legislation expanding the press freedom of Colorado’s student journalists. 

Sponsored by Rep. Barbara McLachlan (D-59), herself a former journalism teacher, HB20-1062 brings Colorado’s law in line with the other New Voices laws that have passed nationwide, which support the rights of student journalists to be free of censorship and protect student media advisers from retaliation. Colorado has had a Student Free Expression law in place since 1990, but the law failed to protect student media advisers from retaliation or retribution when they stood in defense of their students’ rights. The pre-Internet law failed to anticipate the move to digital and broadcast student media. With the adoption of HB20-1062, that has now been rectified. The bill was also sponsored in the Senate by Senators Pete Lee (D-11) and Don Coram (R-6).

In February, students and advisers testified in a hearing that left witnesses and legislators emotional about the gaps in Colorado’s existing law. Laura Sudik Varble told the committee she was removed from her adviser position and her program dismantled after her students wrote an obituary for a student who died from injuries sustained during a wrestling tournament. The students were able to sue under the Student Free Expression law and bring the newspaper back, but she was unprotected by the law and was reinstated only after five months of work by her union. She was not able to return to broadcast or video classes, as neither was expressly protected by the law. 

Patrick Moring recalled being told by his administration he would be fired if his students did not pull a story about a “non-curricular, non-school sponsored” Dungeons and Dragons Club. Moring testified, “I can point to the part in my school district board policy, and it’s paragraphs away from the guarantee of student free speech, that says it’s my job to limit free speech. Whereas I can be held accountable and professional consequences can ensue against me. And my students know this and are frustrated.”

HB 20-1062 was drafted and supported by the Colorado Student Media Association. The Student Press Law Center provided written testimony, and a letter to the Governor in support of the legislation. 

Following the Governor’s approval of the bill, SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris said: “Teachers should never have to fear for their jobs when they stand up for the rights of their students to report the news and do good journalism. We congratulate Colorado for adding these important protections for journalism advisers to their New Voices student press freedom protections. It is at times like these, when students are on the front lines of reporting about huge shifts in their school communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that we need to redouble our appreciation for teachers and value the place of a free press. Enacting this new provision demonstrates the value that journalism teachers bring and protects them as they bravely stand up for the First Amendment rights of their students.”

The bill passed both the House and Senate unanimously. The changes will go into effect ninety days after the conclusion of the Colorado legislative session, or approximately August 5, 2020.