Washington legislature considers bill to free student press

by Elliott Wilson, Seattle Times

There was no mistake when Everett High School students published a newspaper that was nearly blank last year.

The sparsely inked newsprint featured a photo of two seniors with their arms behind their backs as if in handcuffs and with tape across their mouths.

The paper was done in protest by student editors who believed the school had violated their right to a free press when administrators wouldn't publish the school newspaper, The Kodak, without prior review by the principal.

A lawsuit over the dispute goes to federal court later this year, but a bill before the state Legislature could put a student-controlled Kodak in print even sooner.

Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, has introduced legislation that would allow advisers to review student publications but strip them of any authority to control what is printed. Instead, students would be in charge of writing, editing and publishing — and would be liable for any fallout.

Kodak co-editors Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston believed they had those rights in October 2005 when they declared on the Kodak's masthead that the paper was a student forum not subject to prior review by school officials.

They learned otherwise when administrators and the school board pulled the line, asserting they could alter the publication. The school stopped that month's paper but eventually published the edited version as the next month's issue.

The co-editors independently published the nearly blank protest paper.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that school administrators can control what appears in student newspapers.

But laws in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania give students rights and responsibilities similar to those proposed by Upthegrove's bill.

The bill is supported by House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Patricia Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna.

By granting students added freedoms and accountability, Upthegrove hopes to generate an appreciation for constitutional rights and give young people a sense of civic responsibility.

He noted that a recent Knight Foundation survey found nearly half of high-school students were willing to let the government censor news.

"If our next generation grows up without having an appreciation of their First Amendment rights, that has scary implications," Upthegrove said.

He said he rejects that "people should be denied their First Amendment rights because they are young," but he expects some will disagree.

"We are taking away an authority from school administrators and school boards, and it would not surprise me to see those organizations give the bill a real close look."

One group eyeing the proposal is the Washington Association of School Administrators. Executive Director Gary Kipp said school papers are "not designed to be a public forum."

If students want to voice their opinions without restraints, he suggests they turn elsewhere. Between blogs and personal Web sites, Kipp said, "There are lots of opportunities that kids have in school to express whatever they want."

Washington State University student Brian Schraum said that kind of logic just "reinforces the notion that the First Amendment doesn't matter."

Schraum brought the issue to Upthegrove's attention after learning that student journalists such as himself do not have the same rights as their counterparts in the working world.

He ran up against the issue when the student government at his former school, Green River Community College, rejected a push for full freedom of the press.

Lueneburg, who with Eccleston filed a lawsuit against the Everett School District over prior review, said she supports the bill because "it focuses on the learning experience that high-school and college students get when they exercise their rights fully."

Kipp, a former high-school principal, sees student newspapers as important conduits between schools and the public.

"It is a class whose performance is public," and for that reason educators should retain the final say about what's printed, he said.

Jocelyn McCabe, communications director for the administrators association, said students actually learn more about journalism under the existing system.

"The students should benefit from learning the editorial process," she said. "They have not been journalists before."

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/education/2003534198_studentpress21m0.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey