Michigan student press freedom bill clears committee vote, heads to Senate floor





MICHIGAN — A state Senate committee unanimously passed New Voices legislation that would protect student journalists’ free speech rights in the Great Lakes State.

Before voting 5-0 on Senate Bill 848 on Tuesday, state senators on the Committee on Judiciary heard testimony in support of New Voices legislation that would protect student journalists’ right to free speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the school pays for the publication or the media is produced as part of a class. The bill would apply to public schools and public higher education institutions in the state.

The bill, introduced earlier this month, would also prevent administrators from exercising prior restraint on school-sponsored media, unless the content is libelous, invades privacy, violates federal or state law or incites students to create a clear and present danger.

“Victory for freedom of speech,” said Republican Sen. Rick Jones as he drew the meeting to a close. Jones, who serves as chairman of the committee, sponsored the legislation along with Republican Sens. Tom Casperson and Patrick Colbeck and Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda.

The bill would also prevent school administrators from retaliating against student media advisers for protecting student journalists’ free speech rights. The legislation requires all schools districts to adopt a freedom of expression policy that is consistent with the bill’s language.

The legislation is part of the national New Voices movement that aims to protect free speech rights for student journalists. There are other similar bills active in Missouri, Maryland, Rhode Island and Minnesota. The Michigan bill now heads to the Senate floor.

The legislation would reverse the effects of the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, in which the Court ruled that school administrators could censor school newspapers as long as they had a “reasonable educational justification.”

Bob Kefgen, assistant director for government relations for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, testified in sole opposition to the bill and argued that the current standard allows school principals to express the same rights as newspaper publishers. He said passing the bill would teach students they do not have to be responsive to their editors or their communities.

Besides, Kefgen said, students still maintain the right to start an independent blog or website — something made easier today due to access to the Internet.

But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, testified that the Hazelwood decision is outdated and does not represent the current world students live in. In the past, he said, it might have been possible to prevent students from learning about drugs, teen pregnancy and other controversial topics. But now with the internet, LoMonte said students constantly have access to information on those topics — and it’s not always the right information.

“We know our young people are saturated with junk information,” he said. Instead, he said those issues should be heard in the school newspaper, where students are held accountable and responsible for the published content.

In addition, LoMonte said numerous journalism organizations, from the Society of Professional Journalists to the Journalism Education Association, have agreed that the Hazelwood decision has been detrimental to journalism education.

Jeremy Steele, executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, testified in support of the legislation, arguing that school newspapers are hands-on laboratories that foster civic engagement and allow students to report on issues that matter to the school.

Steele said there have been numerous examples of administrative censorship within the state that have prevented students from pursuing articles. He said the bill would set a clear standard for student media and school administrators, while not allowing unacceptable content that is libelous.

Steele, who also runs New Voices of Michigan campaign, said school officials censored two student journalists in Ann Arbor from publishing a column on the stigma associated with mental health. Instead, the two teenagers talked with NPR’s Scott Simon on Weekend Edition about the difficulties of talking about depression and the school’s censorship of the column.

The committee also heard testimony from a Michigan high school student journalist, Chris Robbins, who said participating in the school newspaper has allowed him to learn more about the government’s responsibilities and given him the opportunity to interview different people across the school district.

“It has given me a great opportunity to be part of a community,” he said.

Without censorship from his school’s administration, Robbins said he has been able to explore topics that can have an impact for students.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte, high school journalist Chris Robbins and Michigan Interscholastic Press Association Executive Director Jeremy Steele after testifying in support of the New Voices of Michigan bill. (Photo courtesy of Chris Robbins.)