Student press supporters pessimistic about future of free-expression bills

Despite bright beginning, problems beset legislation introduced in Ala., Ore.

Alabama and Oregon are the two most recent states to attempt to pass a bill giving students free-speech rights in school-sponsored publications. California has had such a law since 1977, while Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts have each enacted student free-expression laws since 1988.

These laws were student press supporters' response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 landmark decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In that case, the Court limited the free-press and free-speech rights of high school students by allowing administrators to practice prior review and prior restraint of many school-sponsored publications and other forms of student expression if school authorities could prove their actions were based on reasonable educational concerns.

In Alabama, supporters of student-press rights decided to take another crack at passing a freedom-of-expression bill after losing their initial battle last year.

House Bill 601,which was introduced in March and sponsored by Rep. Sue Schmitz, D-Toney, finally passed the House Education Committee on April 25 after being postponed twice while the state struggled with school funding issues.

The bill was designed to give public school students the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored publications. In addition, the bill would have given students the right to publish without prior review or prior restraint by administrators.

But a committee member proposed an amendment that would put high school publications under the control of an editorial board consisting of the principal, two faculty members and a student editor.

Under the amendment, any material that receives two negative votes from the board would not be permitted to run in the paper.

In spite of the committee victory, the future of the bill is uncertain. Supporters are unsure whether they will support the bill with the amendment attached to it.

Schmitz withdrew the same bill last year after a legislator introduced an amendment that would have changed the wording of the bill to read that all publications would be subject to prior review instead of no publications subject to prior review.

In Oregon, student press advocates have hit a wall after the sponsor of their state's student expression bill resigned.

House Bill 3497, which was sponsored by Rep. Jo Ann Bowman, D-Portland, was introduced in February and referred to the Judiciary Committee. Bowman resigned to campaign for chairperson of the Multnomah County Commission in March.

The bill, which was drafted by Marc Abrams, a Portland School Board member and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, would protect students from prior review and prior restraint, protect advisers from being reprimanded or fired and protect schools from being held legally liable for the content of student publications.

According to Abrams, not much action has been taken on the bill.

"I don't think this legislature is in a mood to do much of anything this year," Abrams said.

Supporters are looking for another sponsor for the bill.

reports, Spring 2001