Since Washington state adopted student press freedom legislation in 2018, the Student Press Law Center and other advocates have been working to educate school administrators on the law and to ensure student journalists and advisers know their rights.
A critical piece of Washington’s legislation includes the requirement that school districts adopt a student free expression policy.
Despite a number of initiatives to ensure school districts comply with the 4-year-old law, SPLC staff attorneys were surprised in May 2022 to discover — while helping student journalists through the SPLC legal hotline — that Olympia School District still did not have the required policy.
SPLC intervened, and within just three months, the district had adopted the policy and student journalists reported fewer issues covering their school community.
Ensuring student journalists know their rights
In early 2021, SPLC began proactively working to ensure school boards across the country were implementing strong student free expression policies, particularly in those states where policies are required under a student press freedom law. More states continue to pass such legislation, also known as New Voices laws.
With 306 school districts in Washington, SPLC and advocates took a multi-pronged approach to assess compliance with the law.
SPLC filed public records requests to spot-check the extent to which many Washington school districts had a policy in line with Washington’s New Voices Act. Where a district’s policy did not comply –– or where one did not exist at all –– SPLC engaged with the school board and superintendent to identify necessary changes. SPLC has since developed a toolkit as well to help student journalists and other individuals in any state, including Washington, find and understand their own district’s policies.
In addition to checking districts’ compliance, the SPLC team developed and widely distributed a comprehensive Know Your Rights booklet to ensure all students, advisers and school administrators are aware of the Washington law and its protections. SPLC also mailed posters to every newsroom in Washington to make sure student journalists were aware of their rights.
Addressing noncompliance with the law
In March 2022, student media outlet KOUG-TV covered an issue affecting every student at Olympia High School: soap dispenser vandalism leaving little soap in school restrooms. Following the story, though, Olympia’s director of operations — who spoke to the student journalists in an interview — implemented an interview policy requiring KOUG-TV student journalists to get his permission before speaking with any of his staff moving forward.
That’s when Oscar Pecan, a sophomore and KOUG-TV staff member, reached out to SPLC’s free legal hotline.
When SPLC attorneys worked with Pecan to get a copy of the Olympia School District’s New Voices Act-mandated student free expression policy, they found another problem: the policy did not exist.
“If there had already been the policy in place, I think it probably would have been dealt with a lot faster,” Pecan said. “I feel like we would have been able to take it straight to the district, and it would have gotten dealt with.”
SPLC staff attorney Jonathan Gaston-Falk reached out to Olympia School District Board of Directors President Maria Flores in May 2022, notifying her that the lack of a written policy was a violation of the New Voices Act. In his notice, Gaston-Falk offered to help the board develop a written policy and included SPLC’s model student media policy as an available template for the district’s use.
Gaston-Falk also made clear that any future policies impeding student journalists’ work at Olympia could be avoided by complying with the New Voices law.
The district failed to respond, so Gaston-Falk reached out to members of SPLC’s attorney referral network, securing local pro bono assistance to increase the pressure on Olympia officials.
On Aug. 15, 2022, Ambika Kumar and Sara Fairchild at Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP sent a follow-up letter to the Olympia school board, giving the board a deadline to adopt a written policy or before legal action would be pursued to ensure the board complied with the statutory mandate.
Ten days later, on Aug. 25, the Olympia School District Board of Directors adopted that student media policy.
Continuing to secure New Voices protections
Pecan said having a school policy protecting student journalists is important not only at Olympia High School but across the country. Since the district implemented the new policy, Pecan said he has not felt any concerns while reporting.
“I think the policy definitely brought a much greater sense of security for reporters and journalists,” Pecan said.
Gaston-Falk said SPLC is committed to ensuring student journalists across the country are protected by strong New Voices laws, and that includes holding school boards accountable in actually implementing the laws’ requirements.
“The adoption of a New Voices law by a state legislature is only as good as local school boards’ subsequent efforts to implement it as universally as possible. Further reward comes from school districts both understanding and complying with the law,” Gaston-Falk said. “We are thrilled that Olympia School District adopted a policy in compliance with the law, and SPLC will continue to work with school districts throughout Washington to make sure that the law truly protects all high school journalists and their advisers.”