Student free speech gains support


Bills in the works in six states would guarantee free expression to students





Students across the country have been working to see the number of states currently operating under student free expression laws double come January. Next legislative session, lawmakers plan to take the battle for student free speech to the state house.

Student free expression legislation that has been introduced twice to the Missouri legislature will likely be reintroduced again in January, said an aide to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Joan Bray (D-University City).

The proposed legislation says “students of the public schools have the right to exercise student freedom of the press, including the right to write, publish, and disseminate news and opinions in student publications.”

The bill has gone through some changes since its introduction was supported in 1996 by the state Freedom of Expression Committee. Bill Hankins, a high school teacher and a member of the committee, said the new bill is designed to give students the chance to express themselves under the guidance of a faculty adviser. In response to critics who say officials should have the power to say “no” to student newspaper articles, Hankins said the bill puts the burden of guidance on the shoulders of the newspaper adviser, where it belongs. But the adviser should be able to inform students so they can make editorial decisions themselves, Hankins said.

Like the laws in the six states that have passed student free expression legislation, the Missouri bill uses free expression standards modeled after the Supreme Court’s 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision. The law would protect student speech as long as it is not obscene, libelous, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, inciteful of unlawful acts or materially and substantially disruptive of the orderly operation of the school.

A high school student in North Carolina is hoping the legislature will pass a bill that would guarantee free speech for students. Brooke Langly hopes her proposal will number North Carolina among those six states that have already enacted student free press laws. Currently, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Kansas, and Arkansas have such laws.

Langly, a student journalist at Broughton High School, wrote the proposal while attending a youth leadership meeting of high school students from across the state. The proposal then became part of a large compendium of legislative ideas that is on its way to the legislature. Once at the capitol, the compendium will be made available to state representatives who can choose to become sponsors.

Langly said she wrote the free expression proposal because she wanted to bring the issue of student press rights to the attention of lawmakers on a state-wide basis. Langly believes protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists is important.

“I don’t see why high school students should have their rights taken away” she said.

In Arizona, a lawmaker has heard the call from students and journalism educators to enact a state law protecting the rights of student journalists.

Rep. Eddie Joe Lopez (D-Phoenix) plans to introduce a student free expression bill to the next session of the Arizona legislature in January. Lopez said the bill would protect students’ right to free expression, but he said it would do something else along the way. Lopez said he has always worked to get students involved, and “young people looking to change a law that they feel is unjust would involve young people in the political process.” When students and teachers came to him in October and asked him for help, Lopez was interested.

“If they’re looking at journalism as a career, they ought to be able to express themselves” he said.

Students from Tolleson Union High School told Lopez of battles between the student newspaper, the Wolver News, and the school’s principal, Joseph Rega.

The editor of the newspaper, Michelle Beaver, said talking to Lopez was the logical next step in getting a student free expression bill passed. She said the need to pass a state law came about because school district policy follows the student speech controls set by the Supreme Court’s restrictive 1988 Hazlewood v. Kuhlmeier decision. Beaver said she had battled over articles in the paper with Rega numerous times, and that it was necessary to pass a law to give students the right to “say what we want to say, and think what we want to think.”

In one instance, Beaver said, the newspaper wanted to write a story about the school math program. The program elicited negative reactions from nearly all those surveyed by the paper, said Beaver. For a favorable response, Beaver said the Wolver News unsuccessfully attempted to contact a math teacher who had been instrumental in creating the program. But Rega said the students only left “a couple” notes for the teacher, which was not enough for him. Rega censored the article, saying there was no balance in the piece. Rega said his role was that of a publisher, and that he could edit out any material that might be inaccurate.

Rega said he has not seen the bill written by Lopez, but that if a free expression bill were passed, the school would obey it.

“Would we knowingly violate a state law? No,” Rega said.

In Illinois, students and journalism educators alike are voicing their support for a bill that would give students guaranteed freedom of expression.

Representative Mary Lou Cowlishow (R-Naperville) will be working with members of the Illinois Journalism Education Association and the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on a bill they hope will be introduced in January, according to Mary Dixon of the ACLU of Illinois.

Cowlishow introduced a student free expression bill in February of 1996 that passed the House of Representatives, but was blocked by a Republican majority in the Senate. Now that the Democrats have gained control of the House, said Dixon, members of the student press in Illinois stand a good chance of seeing legislation passed that has a Senate sponsor and broad, bi-partisan support in both houses. At a public hearing in November, students, educators, and student press experts from around the country met in Naperville to discuss the possible legislation.

Michigan students will have to wait for a state law guaranteeing them the right to free expression. A bill introduced by Rep. Kirk Profit (D-Ypsilanti) in September of 1995 has been sitting in the Education Committee for over a year. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bill Bryant (R-Gross Point Park), will retire after this legislative session, to be replaced by a new, Democratic chairman in the January session.

An aide to Rep. Profit said the bill may stand a better chance now that the Democrats control the House, but that the Senate is still in the hands of the Republicans and the bill as yet has no Senate sponsor.

A lawmaker in Oregon has plans to introduce student free press legislation to the Oregon state legislature in January.

Rep. George Eighmey (D-Portland) said the bill is in answer to a need for student free speech protection in Oregon. Eighmey said he wrote to every superintendent of every school district in Oregon about student free speech, and received negative responses from all but one.

“That tells me there is a need for this” Eighmey said.

“Students have to have the same rights as professional journalists. Students must be able to express themselves on controversial issues that do not otherwise fall outside the parameters of constitutionally protected speech” said Eighmey.

The bill would allow school districts to adopt policies governing student expression, while at the same time guaranteeing that “student editors of school-sponsored publications are responsible for determining the news, opinion and advertising content of their publications” subject to restrictions that follow the speech guidelines set forth by Tinker. Also, the bill would guarantee free speech rights to “school-sponsored publications, whether or not such publications…are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities or are produced in conjunction with a class.” This would mean that official, school-sponsored publications would be accorded the same free speech rights as alternative student publications, including underground newspapers not sponsored by the school.


reports, Winter 1996-97