OLYMPIA, Wash. — The First Amendment rights of high school and college journalists are up for debate in Washington state, as lawmakers consider whether young scribes should have the same free-press rights as their professional colleagues.
Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, has introduced a bill that would ensure student journalists aren’t censored, and would not allow public schools or universities to discipline or fire a student media adviser for refusing to censor students.
“I don’t think you lose your freedom of speech rights just because you’re young,” Upthegrove said. “The right of free press is more important than the fear of inappropriate content.”
The measure, House Bill 1307, is set for a public hearing on Jan. 16 before the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill is in response to the 2005 Hosty v. Carter ruling by the 7th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court said administrators at Midwest universities could review student articles before publication if their student-run newspapers are published under the auspices of the college. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Even though that ruling only covered Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, student journalist Brian Schraum wanted to pre-empt any similar issues in Washington.
The Washington State University student brought the issue to Upthegrove last summer, who agreed student journalists needed a greater guarantee of protection.
“This really sets an appropriate tone that it’s OK to challenge authority,” said Schraum, who previously was editor in chief of the student newspaper at Green River Community College. “It’s really important that students feel like they can explore issues and express themselves. It’s good preparation for actually going out there into the real world.”
Washington would be following the lead of California, which after the Hosty ruling, moved quickly to pass a measure to prohibit public college and university administrators from censoring student newspapers. Decades earlier, in 1977, California adopted a law providing strong free-press protections to high school students. It expanded that law in 1992 to extend that protection to private schools and to student speech activities outside of student media.
Five other states — Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Massachusetts — also have passed similar laws on high schools, all in response to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that said public school officials could censor school-sponsored publications.
If passed, Washington state’s law would be the first that would cover both high school and college press under the same statute, said Mike Hiestand, attorney and legal consultant for the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center.
“It would be the most comprehensive student-press bill in the country at this point,” he said.
Upthegrove’s bill would offer slightly different protections to high school and college journalists.
High school principals could still ask to see student publications before they went to press but wouldn’t be able to censor or stop publication unless the material was obscene, libelous or slanderous. School officials would not be responsible for what the student publications printed and could not be sued unless they altered the content.
A case that will go to trial later this year involves two Everett High School graduates and former editors of the student newspaper, The Kodak.
Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston sued the school district in 2005, alleging violation of free-speech and press rights after administrators requested prior review of each issue. Lueneburg said the principal objected to the masthead, which identified the Kodak as a “student forum” and that the publication was pulled when the students refused to change it.
The publication eventually went underground and was published with donations.
“I think it’s vitally important that students are allowed to practice their rights as citizens,” said Lueneburg, now 19 and a freshman at Whitman College in Walla Walla. “This bill will really allow students to fully grasp those rights.”
Under the measure, college students would not be subject to prior review by school administrators, and colleges and universities would not be held responsible.
Attorney General Rob McKenna, who is also supporting a proposed reporter’s shield law this year, said it was important to lay out the rights of student journalists and the responsibilities of the administrators.
“I think the lack of that statutory guidance has led to more conflict and overreaching by administrators,” he said.
But Gary Kipp, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals, said that most principals would be very concerned about the measure. He noted that schools exercise control over what material drama and choir classes perform.
“Schools have not given kids free rein to include in there anything they want to include just as long as its not libelous,” he said. “I’m not sure why we would need a bill that would put student newspapers in a different category.”
Kipp said he also had concerns about the legal ramifications of the measure.
“If I have been libeled by an article, and I choose to seek some remedy through the cvil court, and this bill says I can’t go after the school, who do I go after?” he asked. “Do we go after the kids?”