A Lost Cause?

Recent failures in state legislatures lead supporters to wonder if the time for student free-expression laws has passed

For many journalism educators seeking to pass anti-Hazelwood\nlaws, Joan Bray's story is a familiar one.

The St. Louis legislator has faithfully introduced a student\nfree-expression bill eight times since she was elected to the\nMissouri House of Representatives\nin 1992. It is a good fit for the former reporter and middle school\njournalism teacher.

It also hits close to home. Bray lives a few minutes' drive\nfrom the heart of the legal debate on censorship of school-sponsored\npublications, Hazelwood East High School. Eighteen years ago,\nan issue of the Spectrum censored by Hazelwood's principal ultimately\nled to a Supreme Court decision affirming the right of principals\nto control student publications.

But after eight bills introduced and eight rejected, Missouri's\nstudent journalists are in the same place they were in 1988 when\nthe Supreme Court issued its decision in Hazelwood School District\nv. Kuhlmeier. Bray's proposal, like legislation in other states,\nseeks to grant students more First Amendment rights than those\nafforded in the Hazelwood decision, such as freedom from prior\nreview and censorship of controversial articles.

Bray has the support of the state's advisers and student journalists,\nwho write letters to their representatives and occasionally stage\nrallies in the capital. But lined up against the bill are school\nadministration groups and conservative Republicans who ensure\nthat the proposal does not go anywhere. The bill has not even\nhad a hearing in the last two years it was introduced.

This is the experience of most anti-Hazelwood bills introduced\naround the country. Of the 29 that have considered them, only\nsix states -- Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- have\nadopted the legislation, and it has been six years since student\njournalists' last victory in Arkansas.

This has free-expression supporters wondering whether the political\nclimate has shifted away from students' rights and if it is possible\nto overcome supporter fatigue, school administrators and conservative\nlawmakers to bring more states under the First Amendment umbrella.

Ducks in a Row

"Get all your ducks in a row and get a lobbyist."

That's the advice of Bruce Plopper, a journalism professor\nat the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who shepherded his\nstate's anti-Hazelwood bill. His advice is to mobilize a base\nof advisers, parents and students around passing the law.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center,\nsaid many efforts fail because the issue is not a priority of\njournalism educators groups, or only a few people actively work\nfor its passage. What is needed, he said, is a well-organized\nand broad-based coalition.

"Unless you have active and ongoing support from advisers\nand students around the state, this effort is destined to fail,"\nGoodman said. "One or two people can organize the process,\nbut they can't persuade a state legislature to pass a student\nfree expression law."

Although support of advisers and students is key to a successful\ncampaign, the groups with the power to kill the bill are the most\nimportant to get on your side or at least off the playing field.

In addition to the scholastic press groups, Plopper said he\nmet with associations of principals, superintendents, parents\nand the professional press. He then convinced administrators to\nremain neutral on the bill rather than oppose it as they had in\nprevious years.

In Illinois, where the legislature overwhelmingly passed an\nanti-Hazelwood bill in 1996 only to be vetoed by Gov. Jim Edgar,\nactivists were also able to convince a school administration group\nnot to oppose the bill.

"It's clear you have to get the school management people\non board because they'll kill it," said James Tidwell, a\nprofessor at Eastern Illinois University who fought for the bill.

In Illinois, as in Arkansas, the key to quieting reservations\nfrom powerful administration groups was to compromise on the language\nof the bill. After negotiating with the Illinois School Management\nAlliance, proponents agreed to moderate the language of the bill\nto give principals more control without severely damaging students'\nrights. Legislators often rely on school lobbying groups for advice\non the impact of proposed legislation, and a neutral recommendation\nmay allay their fears about the bill.

"They may not support it, but if they don't oppose it,\nthat's the key," Tidwell said.

ISMA officials said ideally they want school boards to decide\nwhat schools are allowed to do, but changes to the bill led them\nto drop their opposition.

"We really don't want any policy in state legislation,"\nISMA lobbyist Ben Schwarm said. "Generally, we're looking\nto make sure nothing is usurped at the state level."

Plopper said he was able to get support for the Arkansas bill\nby significantly moderating its language, a move that has drawn\ncriticism from journalism educators in other states. Instead of\nmandating specific guidelines, Arkansas' law requires each school\ndistrict to develop a policy that adheres to general principals,\nin deference to the interests of local school boards.

Two years after the bill's passage, Plopper surveyed school\ndistricts and found "significant noncompliance" with\nthe law, but he said students are in a better place than before.

"We've got something that's a first step from having nothing,"\nhe said.

Changes to the bills' language can be damaging, though, if\nthey hamstring the intent of the proposal. Often legislators opposed\nto the bills attach killer amendments that defeat the purpose\nof the bill by allowing more censorship or making the law's requirements\noptional, as has happened recently in Nebraska and Connecticut.

Navigating the Halls of Power

"Maybe we had seen too many Mr. Jones goes to Washington\nmovies, where a citizen outcry will be met in the legislature,"\nsaid Ron Johnson, the director of student publications at Kansas\nState University who helped pass Kansas' law in 1992. "It\njust doesn't work that way."

Especially with an issue that is foreign to most legislators,\naction does not happen on autopilot, meaning supporters have to\npersuade others that theirs is an important issue. In finding\na legislator to sponsor the proposal, there is no set formula\nfor success. Kansas' sponsor was a longtime Republican leader\nwhile the Arkansas bill was sponsored by a freshman Democrat.

What all of the successful states did have was a sponsor who\nis respected on education issues and dedicated to the bill's success.

"You need someone on the inside of the legislative process\nthat believes in your cause," Johnson said. And if you plan\nto get the bill to the governor, you will eventually need an equally\ndedicated sponsor in the other chamber, Tidwell said.

All of the recent successes came via widespread grassroots\naction during the legislative process. Advisers, parents and students\nwrote letters and make phone calls repeatedly during the process.\nMany legislators admit they do not make a decision on a bill until\nit is before them, so it is important to build up pressure before\nevery vote, proponents say.

Tidwell said legislators were impressed by the Illinois Journalism\nEducators Association's lobbying campaign, which assured them\nthe issue was worthwhile. He also said it was important to collaborate\nwith lobbyists for the professional press and other sympathetic\ngroups to keep up with any developments.

In many states, bills die because of the opposition of a few\npowerful people, such as committee heads. Former SPLC executive\ndirector and Portland School Board member Marc Abrams said Oregon's\nanti-Hazelwood bill has failed because the ruling party's leadership\nopposes it

"They personally decide they don't like something -- that's\nthe end of it," he said.

Bray said her bill actually passed the Education Committee,\nbut it never went to the floor because the chairman decided not\nto release it. Now despite the fact that the current speaker of\nthe house is a cosponsor, committee chairmen will not even schedule\na hearing, much less a vote.

"It's just a losing issue," Bray said. "It's\njust become much more conservative."

Although Democrats control the Missouri House, Bray says conservatives\non the other side of the aisle are much more opposed to the plan\nthan when she first came to the legislature.

A conservative shift is often cited as a major impediment to\nthe success of the bills, with conservatives said to be less likely\nto give kids more rights. Kansas has shifted to the right, Johnson\nsaid, evidenced in a recent attempt to weaken the state's freedom\nof expression law.

"We were very fortunate to get through when we did because\nI don't think it's likely that any such legislation would make\nit through Kansas right now," Johnson said.

Recent experience has shown, however, that party affiliation\nis not a determinant of success. In the past\ntwo years, most anti-Hazelwood bills have failed in Democratically\ncontrolled chambers. The one exception is Oregon, where Republicans\nhave a narrow majority. Of the five states that have adopted student\nfree-expression laws since the Hazelwood case, three had Democratic\nand two had Republican legislatures.

Plopper discounted the idea that progress cannot be made in\nan era of conservatism.

"If we can pass one in Arkansas, people who are willing\nto compromise can pass one in a state with a conservative legislature,"\nhe said. "If you're not willing to compromise, I suspect\nthat it's not going to work."

Holy Grail or Paper Cup?

The short history of student journalists with freedom of expression\nprotection suggests the battle does not end at a signing ceremony\nin the governor's office. Students in anti-Hazelwood states still\nface censorship from administrators largely because the laws are\nlittle known and poorly enforced.

Despite having anti-Hazelwood protection years before there\nwas a Hazelwood, student journalists in California continually\nseek help from the SPLC when they have been censored. Just this\nyear, administrators have tried to restrict everything from editorials\nabout a school bond vote to a letter about Black History Month,\nas well as many other incidents that go unchallenged by students.

Student press freedom in Kansas is also less than universal,\naccording to recent experience. Johnson said the law lacks "teeth,"\nso principals can censor without the fear of any punishment. What\nit does give students, he says, is solid ground for editors to\nstand on when they make their case.

There may be "significant noncompliance" among Arkansas'\nadministrators, but Plopper said it is an improvement over having\nno protections.

"Principals are ruling with iron hands without any legislation,"\nhe said. "Afterwards, principals were willing to liberalize\ntheir school's policy."

Forty-four to Go

In the great majority of states that have yet to pass student\nfree-expression legislation, there is little optimism for progress.\nEven in a state like Illinois, where legislation got overwhelming\nsupport only to be vetoed at the last minute, supporters are not\nplanning a full-scale effort to revive the fight.

"We just haven't had the wherewithal to come up with another\npush since then," Tidwell said of the bill's proponents.\n"It's hard to get them motivated again."

Meanwhile, perennial supporters like Abrams and Bray plan to\nkeep the issue alive, even if just to wait for a more agreeable\npolitical climate.

"I've got 30 more good years in me," Abrams said.\n"I'll keep trying."

View a correction pertaining to a chart that accompanied this story in the Report.

Fall 2001, reports