Ore. lawmakers endorse student-press bill

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Oregon Legislature gave final approval this week to a bill that would create the first state law to protect both college and high school journalists under the same statute.

The measure now awaits Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s signature.

“This bill clarifies for both administrators and students the independent nature of the student voice,” said Gene Policinski, Vice President/Executive Director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville.

The House on June 18 voted 39-21 to endorse Senate amendments to the measure, H.B. 3279, which provides that student journalists in public high schools and institutions of higher learning have free-speech and -press rights in school-sponsored media. The Senate passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Galizio, D-Tigard, by a 16-14 vote on June 11.

The bill, which was modeled on a similar measure (H.B. 1307) that failed to earn a vote before the Washington state legislative session ended earlier this year, provides that student journalists in public institutions are responsible for deciding the content of school-sponsored media. At both the high school and college level, the bill would allow students to file civil suits against any school that violates their press rights.

“For administrators, it provides guidelines and appropriate expectations to parents, school board members and others who would censor student voices. For students it reinforces the value our society places on free speech,” Policinski said.

Jake Weigler, spokesperson for Kulongoski, told the Student Press Law Center that the governor had told supporters of the bill that he would sign it. If signed, the law will become effective July 1.

After amendments by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the final version of the bill no longer includes a provision to protect student media advisers from being punished for “refusing to suppress the protected expression of student journalists.” A clause declaring all college-sponsored media to be designated as public forums, exempting them from prior review by college officials, was also deleted.

J-Ideas.org reported that Galizio had pledged to continue working for these protections in the future, however. J-Ideas.org is an outreach program developed at Ball State University designed to create First Amendment awareness in public and private schools and to develop success in high school journalism programs.

Neil Bryant, a lobbyist and attorney with the Oregon University system, told the Student Press Law Center that the initial amendments allowed the bill to pass.

Policinski added that employment protection for advisers could be addressed separately.

“It is important to add job security for advisers. They bring continuity to publications and a long-term sense of purpose. However, in some cases this kind of employment issue needs to be argued separately from the bill that protects students’ rights,” he said.

Although there has been limited opposition to the idea of protecting university and high school students in the same measure, student-press advocates have expressed excitement about the bill’s passage.

Mark Goodman, departing executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told J-Ideas.org that he was happy to hear the news — especially since the measure would be the first since 1995 to provide protections for high school journalists.

“After 12 years since Arkansas, it’s great to (almost) have another law on the book,” Goodman said.

Policinski agreed.

“With the number of issues students face these days ranging from violence, sexual issues and drugs, on top of community issues, student journalists are uniquely well-positioned to know what their peer audience should know or wants to know. I hope that as a result of this legislation, even controversial but important subjects will not be automatically considered off-limits for fear of censorship or administrative reprisal,” he said.

In addition to Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have established laws to protect high school journalists. Most of the laws were passed in response to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that said high school administrators could censor school-sponsored media. California also provides protection for the college press at both public and private institutions.

Illinois has recently passed an anti-censorship bill, the College Campus Press Act (S.B. 0729), which is awaiting Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s signature. If signed, the law would essentially override the 2005 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hosty v. Carter. The Hosty decision allowed prior restraint on student newspapers from public college administrators at schools in the 7th Circuit states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

The Illinois bill has an amendment that protects school administrators from being punished for material produced by students.

Courtney Holliday is a junior majoring in economics and public policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

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