Bid to safeguard Wash. student press fails again

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

After a failed attempt in 2007 to protect students’ free speech and press, Washington state legislators have again refused to pass a bill that would have safeguarded the First Amendment rights of student journalists at public high schools and universities.

State Sen. Joe McDermott, D-Seattle, introduced the Student Press Freedom Bill (S.B. 6449) on Jan. 15. The bill, which had six cosponsors, was almost identical to one introduced last year by Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines. Upthegrove’s 2007 bill (H.B. 1307) passed through the House of Representatives but ran out of time in the Senate. This year’s version died after the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to consider it. Last year, the same committee passed the bill only after its protections for high school students were removed.

Both bills had defined the roles of students, administrators and advisers in school-sponsored media. Student editors would have been responsible for all news content. Administrators would not have been allowed to exercise prior review over college publications, though high school administrators would have been allowed to review content. High school journalists could have had their work censored for obscenity, libel, invasion of privacy or inciting disruptive behavior, according to the proposed law.

The 2008 bill offered two substantial changes from the 2007 version. First, courts would have been able to award only “reasonable” attorneys fees to students who successfully sue their schools for violating their rights to free expression. The previous bill did not include the word “reasonable.” Second, the bill applied to students in high schools as well as colleges. The original text of the 2007 bill also applied to both, but was changed via an amendment in the Senate that removed the protections for high school students.

An alliance of 16 interest groups and education associations, known as the Washington Coalition for Responsible Student Expression, banded together to promote the legislation. Members of the coalition include the Student Press Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the Washington Journalism Education Association.

Brian Schraum, a Washington resident who organized the coalition, told the SPLC that he was disappointed with the Senate’s actions but that he thinks “it is safe to say you haven’t heard the last from Washington State on this issue.”

Washington would have joined eight other states in protecting the free-expression rights of students: Oregon, California, Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Massachusetts, Colorado and Arkansas. States began to seek their own protections for students’ First Amendment rights after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2005 in Hosty v. Carter that public college administrators could censor the student press. A similar decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier allows high school administrators to censor student media.

“Student journalists should be held to the same standards of accuracy, fairness and completeness to which other journalists are held. In return, those student journalists should be protected from those who would stifle student expression for reasons that have nothing to do with good journalism,” Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, told J-Ideas at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Melanie Bengtson is a junior studying political and economic development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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