Michigan anti-censorship bill likely to die, student press advocates say

Michigan Press Association decides not to take position on bill

MICHIGAN -- A state bill that would protect high school newspapers from censorship is not picking up any steam more than a year after it was proposed. And the Michigan Press Association’s decision not to support the bill is not helping matters, one student press advocate said.

Michigan Senate Bill 156 says that a school official or school board may not review or restrain a student publication prior to its publication unless an article is obscene to minors, defamatory, an invasion of privacy or if it poses a "clear and present danger" of illegal or substantially disruptive activity.

Sen. Michael Switalski, D-Roseville, introduced the bill in 2004.

Student press advocates agree it is unlikely to gain enough support to become state law. The MPA not supporting the bill does not help matters, said Perry Parks, a member of the Michigan Collegiate Press Association Board of Directors, which is affiliated with the MPA. The Michigan Collegiate Press Association has publicly supported the bill, Parks said.

“It would be easy for a legislator who’s looking at this bill to say, ‘The MPA isn’t even behind this bill, so why should I be?’” said Parks, who is also the editorial adviser for Michigan State University’s student newspaper, The State News.

MPA’s executive director Mike MacLaren said his organization, which represents the interests of 300 Michigan newspapers, has been known to support and lobby for First Amendment-related bills. But this bill was one the board of directors chose not to take a position on.

“We weren’t comfortable supporting it as it was written,” MacLaren said. “When you go to work for a for-profit, publicly-held newspaper, quite often stories are going to get spiked by the editor. Students have to be prepared for those eventualities.”

Bills like Senate Bill 156, which are referred to as anti-Hazelwood laws and are on the books in six states, give students greater First Amendment protection. High school students’ First Amendment rights were limited after the 1988 landmark Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. Students who worked for Hazelwood East High School’s student newspaper sued the school district after the principal removed two articles that he objected to: one on teen pregnancy and another on divorce.

The court, ruling that the students’ First Amendment rights were not violated, wrote, "Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns."

Nationally, administrators have used the Hazelwood case to support their decisions to alter or prevent students’ articles from publication.

Both Parks and MacLaren are former reporters and used their background to justify their position on whether high school journalists should have expanded free speech rights.

Parks credited his pre-Hazelwood high school newspaper experience with giving him the gumption to pursue hot stories.

“Standing up to miffed high school administrators gave me the courage to talk my way past a police line in college and the confidence to challenge a federal marshal trying to exclude reporters from a high-profile trial on my first job,” Parks wrote in a February article published in MPA’s newsletter.

MacLaren said he was no stranger to censorship when he worked as a professional reporter.

“I’ve had that happen to me,” he said.

“I could argue all I wanted with my editor and publisher, but at the end of the day, they own the paper and I work for them. That’s a critical lesson for student journalists.”

Comparing school administrators to professional newspaper publishers is way off, Parks said. Both publishers and reporters have the common goal of exercising their free speech rights; administrators are not looking out for the First Amendment rights of their students, Parks said.

Ultimately, without a bill to protect Michigan student journalists, high school students will not learn the kind of investigative journalism that is valued at professional newspapers, Parks said.

“If you’re thinking long term and you’re a publisher in Michigan, you want people to come and work for your newspaper who know how to challenge authority, write about sensitive issues and make a difference,” Parks said. High school newspaper censorship “produces the kind of bland journalism that is turning people away from newspapers to begin with.”

Michigan, Michigan State University, news, The State News