Free speech advocates appeal to Wash. State Senate for third chance at student press bill
WASHINGTON -- Students, newspaper advisers, school board representatives, and First Amendment advocates filed into a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington yesterday to debate, for the third year in a row, the merits of student free press legislation in their state.
Senate Bill 5946, introduced this year by Sen. Joe McDermott (D-West Seattle), would give high school and college students the right to free expression in school-sponsored media, limit administrative control over the content of student speech, and immunize schools and universities from liability for content of student publications.
"This bill creates a reasonable and workable balance between the rights of students to meaningfully express themselves and the need for school officials to maintain an orderly learning environment," said Mike Hiestand, Student Press Law Center attorney, in his committee testimony. "Essentially it does nothing more than give student journalists back the same protections their parents had before 1988."
Prior to the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which greatly increased administrative censorship authority over many student publications, the Tinker standard applied to most student media. In the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision, the U.S. Supreme Court famously said students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The ruling held that school officials could not punish or prohibit student speech absent a reasonable belief that it would result in material, substantial disruption of school activities or impede upon others' rights.
According to McDermott, who spoke at the hearing in defense of his bill, it is important for Washington to return those freedoms to its students.
"I think it's important to not only educate our students but to trust them ... and empower them with the rights and responsibilities that are entrusted to them in our Constitution," McDermott said.
Not everyone at the hearing was in agreement with McDermott, though. Jerry Bender, director of governmental relations for the Association of Washington School Principals, expressed concern for schools that would be forced to deal with consequences of their students' editorial decisions despite not having oversight authority.
The bill's defenders countered by pointing out that SB 5946 includes provisions that absolve schools from liability, but the bill's detractors remained unconvinced that the extra freedoms for students is worth what they see as added risk.
If both schools and parents are not liable for student speech, some argued, the victim of libelous content published in a student newspaper would have no means of recourse because students generally do not have the means to pay damages if successfully sued.
Hiestand responded that while this is probably true, it is not fair to attach a financial qualifier to free press rights. The First Amendment, he reminded senators, is intended to protect minority opinion, and "minorities often don't have the kind of financial resources that the big boys have."
If SB 5946 is passed, Washington will become the ninth state to adopt student free press legislation. Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon all have laws restoring to high school and college media the First Amendment protection that was reduced by Hazelwood. Illinois law provides similar protections for college student media.
Bill Will of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association concluded the testimony, echoing what other bill supporters asserted throughout the hearing: "There is not a minimum age to exercise your First Amendment rights."
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