Washington student press freedom bill stalls in committee this legislative session

Corrected 2/25: Due to a source error, this article originally said the bill would still be active for two years. The bill will need to be reintroduced next year. The article has been updated to reflect this. 

WASHINGTON — After a month of growing momentum, the Washington State student press freedom bill failed to make it out of the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 6233, which would have given students at both public high schools and colleges in the state the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, passed through the Senate Committee on Early Learning & K-12 Education by a 6-2-1 vote earlier this month. The legislation then went to the Senate Rules Committee, where it had two weeks for legislators to decide if it would make it on to the Senate floor.

According to the bill tracker, legislators did not vote down the bill in the committee, but simply let the clock run out. The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Joe Fain, did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment.

The news that the bill would not progress to the Senate floor was disappointing, Thomas Custodio-Kaup said, as he drove to Olympia to deliver brownies to the legislators who had helped with the effort. Custodio-Kaup, a high school newspaper adviser, is one of the organizers of the New Voices of Washington campaign, which has been fighting to pass the anti-censorship legislation.

“I’m disappointed it didn’t get through, but it was a long shot because of the short session,” he said. “We can bring it back, I guarantee you we will. It’s time now to work on a campaign. … We’ll really promote the word and get the word out [that we’re defending] constitutional rights for students.”

Washington’s legislature is in the middle of a 60-day short session which ends March 10. Fain plans to reintroduce the bill in the legislature's next session, which starts next January.

Custodio-Kaup said part of the reason why the legislation stalled is because Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a “very influential” Democrat, opposed the bill. She, along with Republican Sen. Bruce Dammeier, voted against the legislation in the education committee.

In an interview, McAuliffe said there recently have been some situations in the state involving high school newspapers that concerned her and caused her not to support the bill.

"What I've decided was that there are journalism teachers who are very skillful and are highly educated as how to manage students at a newspaper, and there are journalism teachers who kind of take it as a part-time job because it's a small school or district ... and they don't quite have the skills and knowledge about what's appropriate and not appropriate, and how they can help students be appropriate about what they're printing," she said. 

Most drastically, McAuliffe said, a Washington school district was sued a few years ago for content in the student newspaper, the JagWire. Dammeier was serving on the school board during this time.

The JagWire had published a series of articles about teen oral sex that quoted several students about their own experiences with oral sex. The families of the students who were quoted sued the Puyallup School District, arguing that the paper published “private details” about the students without their consent. The JagWire held that the reporter clearly identified herself and offered to let the students request anonymity, but they declined.

The district court jury ruled in favor of the student journalists, saying that they had acted appropriately and the students quoted had given their consent to be included. But the families appealed the ruling, arguing that the school district’s policy of allowing the JagWire to operate as an “open forum” for student expression was negligent. The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of the student newspaper, and the Washington Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.

In response to the lawsuit, the school district approved a new policy allowing prior review of student publications. The JagWire is no longer an open forum.

McAuliffe said she wouldn't support any amendments to the bill, because students "either have the right or they don't have the right."

At the education committee's hearing, the sole testimony in opposition of the bill came from the Association of Washington School Principals. A representative from the group testified that the school district serves as the publisher and should have some control over what is published in a school newspaper — and that this is “more of a curricular issue than a free speech issue.”

This marks the third time in recent years that Washington legislators have tried to pass legislation against administrative censorship. In 2007, a press freedom bill died in the state Senate after it passed through the House. A near identical bill was reintroduced in 2008 in the Senate, but it died in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee when legislators did not have a hearing on the bill.

Custodio-Kaup said the Journalism Education Association state chapter will continue fighting to enact student press freedom legislation in the next session. The next step, he said, will be gathering support from the professional media in the state, which did not take a stance on the bill this time.

The sweeping wave of New Voices legislation across the country will also help spur the momentum next session, Custodio-Kaup said. So far, there are active student press freedom bills in Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri and Maryland.

In a New Voices of Washington Facebook post, Custodio-Kaup wrote that they have just begun “to wage war against ignorance and intolerance.”

“But if you know anything about Washington Advisers,” he wrote, “we have just begun to fight. I’m not stopping until they roll me out of the classroom !!!”

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles.

Fill out my online form.

new voices, news, recent-news, Washington

Washington state Sen. Joe Fain speaks at the state Senate education committee's hearing on the New Voices of Washington bill on Jan. 21. (Photo/Dan Hiestand)