Michigan lawmaker drafts student-expression bill

Tuesday, December 29, 1998

Unnerved by stories of student censorship in her state, a Michigan lawmaker said she plans to renew sponsorship of a bill designed to protect student expression in schools.


“Student journalists should have the right to print without being censored,” said Lynne Martinez, D-Lansing, who drafted the Michigan Student Expression Bill this year and plans to reintroduce it when the legislature reconvenes next month. “Professional papers aren't censored. Why should student publications be?”


If passed, the bill would prohibit middle-school and high-school officials from conducting prior review or restraint of school-sponsored student publications. The bill states that the students comprising a publication's staff should be responsible for its content.


The bill, however, does forbid publishing obscene, inciting or defamatory material. It also requires school officials to appoint faculty sponsors to oversee production of student publications.


Martinez said that she drafted the bill in response to the Supreme Court's decision in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case. In that ruling, the court said school officials may monitor school-sponsored publications if they can demonstrate sound educational reasons for doing so.


Michigan lawmakers first considered a student-press bill eight years ago, but soon lost interest. However, the censorship of a middle-school student last spring sparked new momentum, Martinez said.


Dan Vagasky, then the eighth-grade editor of his school newspaper in Otsego, Mich., sued school officials after they blocked publication of a story about a shoplifting incident that occurred on a school field trip.


Although school officials acknowledged that the story was accurate, the incident led to the resignation of the newspaper advisor and the demise of the school paper.


Martinez said the incident was one of several that occurred during the past year. Despite that, she said, she doubts that the bill – which stalled in committee last session – will clear all of the hurdles next year.


“Even if it passes the House, our Senate in Michigan is extremely conservative,” Martinez said. “They don't want to even take up issues about people's rights, in my opinion. But we keep trying.”


News of the Michigan bill is encouraging, even if passage looks doubtful, says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.


“There's really been kind of a lull,” Goodman said. “But the Michigan bill could be big, a good start of a new wave of legislation.”


Six states currently have laws on the books designed to bolster student expression in the wake of Hazelwood, Goodman said. California passed the first one in 1971.


More than 20 other states, including Michigan, have considered such legislation but haven't passed it. This year, the Kansas legislature considered changing its law to permit school administrators to conduct prior review but ultimately declined to amend the law.


Hazelwood

notwithstanding, the half-dozen student-expression laws have already withstood some court scrutiny. Goodman said the California law, in particular, has overcome several challenges.

But he noted that that the law was upheld not necessarily because of the First Amendment, but because of the Tenth, which says powers not enumerated in the Constitution are reserved to the states.


“Basically, the states have the authority to create whatever kind of rights they want to give to their students as long as (such rights) are greater than those embodied in the First Amendment,” Goodman said.


The most interesting aspect of efforts such as the Michigan law, said Goodman, is the fact that students, teachers and free-press advocates “are not just sitting idly by accepting the censorship. It's been 10 years, and they're still trying to fight the Hazelwood decision.”