States propose student press protections

Six states have passed student free expression legislation to restore free speech protections in the wake of restrictions set by the Supreme Court in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, and six more have introduced similar bills this session.

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, and Massachusetts currently have student free expression laws.

First Amendment advocates across the country are hoping to add Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon to that list, with new legislation in the works in each of these states. Legislation has been proposed, but not yet introduced, in Maine.

ARIZONA — A student free press bill introduced this session was voted down 6-1 by the Senate Education and Judicial Committee.

The committee said they wanted to leave the issue in the hands of local school boards instead of enacting a statewide law.

The Arizona legislation has been tossed around since 1992, when it was first introduced by Sen. Stan Furman (D-Phoenix) and died in the house after passing the Senate.

The bill remained inactive in 1994, and was revised and reintroduced in the House in January by Rep. Eddie Joe Lopez, (D-Phoenix).

The proposed bill would place responsibility for determining news opinion, and advertising content in the hands of student editors, and says “No authorized student publication is subject to prior review by school administrators.”

There are no exceptions to this protection, but the bill makes clear that this is not to be interpreted as an authorization for expression that under state law is obscene, libelous, slanderous, defamatory, is an unwarranted invasion of privacy, or creates a clear and present danger of substantial disruption.

It also offers protections from being fired or transferred for advisers who refuse to suppress the free expression rights of students, and protects school districts and district employees from being held liable for expression made by students.

Lopez has said he will be willing to work with students and journalism groups to reintroduce the bill next session, and to muster more support for it.

ILLINOIS — H.B. 154, the student free expression bill in Illinois, passed out of the House by a vote of 109-4 in April.

The bill now goes on to the Senate Secondary Education Committee. If passed, the bill would grant student journalists in Illinois freedom of the press protections without being subject to prior restraint (with exceptions for libelous expression, expression which is obscene or harmful to minors, or constitutes unwarranted invasion of privacy, or incites “imminent lawless action”) regardless of whether or not the paper is school-sponsored or supported financially by the school. The bill would also shift supervising and advising responsibility away from school principals.

MAINE — Legislation for student expression modeled after bills in other states was proposed in Maine this spring by attorney Jed Davis of Augusta. Because the deadline for presenting bills was in December, no bill was introduced before the legislature this session.

MICHIGAN — Rep. Kirk Profit (D-Ypsalanti) is hoping to reintroduce the Michigan student free expression bill, and is currently waiting for a hearing on it. The legislation was originally introduced in 1991, and was picked up last year by Profit. The bill never made it out of the House Education Committee last year. Profit has placed it on his list of requests for 1997, but may not know one way or the other about it before the summer recess, according to his aide, Lynn Turcotte. Profit is looking for co-sponsors to boost support for the bill, but it is not expected to go anywhere in the near future.

MISSOURI — The Missouri freedom of expression bill has been introduced three times over the last several years by Rep. Joan Bray (D-University City). It has been reintroduced this session and has been heard in committee.

Bray is currently waiting to see if the legislation will be voted on this session. On January 16, supporters of the legislation held state-wide rallies in schools, county courthouses and at the state capitol building.

The rallies coincided with the 9th anniversary of the Hazelwood decision, and participants wore black armbands “in sad remembrance of the from the Tinker philosophy to that of Hazelwood.”

In the rally statement distributed throughout the state, supporters of the Bray bill said, “We are here today to mourn the loss of the freedoms that were outlined in the 1969 Tinker Supreme Court decision by wearing the symbol of that fight for freedom of speech so many years ago. But this armband is also a symbol for the future fight we will continue to wage in Missouri until no student voice is silenced as a result of media fears and misunderstandings.”

The bill says that “No student publication shall be subject to prior review by school administrators,” and specifically protects material with political or controversial subject matter.

The bill also protects advisers, administrators, and school employees from termination of employment, transfer, or reprimand for “refusal to abridge or infringe upon the right to freedom of expression.”

NEBRASKA — The Student Freedom of Expression Act in Nebraska has been introduced three times since 1994, and has been reintroduced this session as L.B. 539.

“The Legislature finds that students attending public high schools in the state of Nebraska are students who are entitled to exercise their rights under the federal and state constitutions to express themselves freely in newspapers, yearbooks, and other school publications,” says the bill’s introduction.

The legislation is modeled after similar bills which have already passed in other states.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Beutler, had a hearing before the Education Committee, but there will probably no action this session, according to Cynthia Odabassi, Beutler’s aide.

It will carry over for next session, and its supporters are planning to use that time gap to get more support from student groups and to educate and urge school boards and legislators about its importance, Odabassi said.

OREGON — Rep. George Eighmey (D-Portland) has introduced legislation similar to bills introduced in Oregon in 1989 and 1995.

“A student publication, whether school-sponsored or non-school-sponsored, is not subject to prior review by school administrators,” the bill says.

It offers similar protections and stipulations as bills in other states.

“It’s been reintroduced, but I can tell you right now that it won’t go anywhere, because of the current makeup of Oregon’s House Education Committee,” said Eighmey’s press aide.

Eighmey has received negative response about the bill from Oregon superintendents, and says a student petition and student lobbying with Oregon superintendents and school boards is probably the best approach for building support for the bill.

reports, Spring 1997