Washington bill would protect student journalists' free speech

by Debbie Cafazzo, Tacoma News-Tribune

Last year, student journalists at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor learned a lesson about freedom of the press – and how it can be restricted – when their principal pulled copies of the student paper from circulation because she objected to an illustration and a photograph in the paper.

In 2005, Everett High School students reached an impasse with a school principal who said she had a right to review editions of the school paper before publication. Students disagreed, and have filed a lawsuit.

Were these cases of censorship? Or legitimate editorial control?

While students and free-press advocates might argue censorship, some educators say they have no choice but to exercise adult judgment when it comes to the student press.

State legislation proposed by state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, could have an impact on how episodes like those in Gig Harbor and Everett play out in the future.

H.B. 1307 would prohibit public high schools from censoring student media in most cases. It would also protect school officials from liability for student expressions of free speech. Six states already have similar laws.

On Saturday, Upthegrove joined student journalists, educators and others in a forum held at The News Tribune to discuss the proposed law and related issues. The forum was sponsored by the nonprofit Washington News Council, the Washington Journalism Education Association and Pacific Lutheran University’s communications department.

Students on the panel and in the audience spoke about their passion for exercising their freedom of speech – passion that can sometimes give school officials heartburn.

“In my math class, in English class, I have to write what they want me to,” said Kirsten Nee, a sophomore at Franklin Pierce High School.

But she finds her voice in the pages of her school paper, The Cardinal: “The paper is where I can express myself.”

Summer Yates, a senior at Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup and editor of the school’s JagWire newspaper, said passage of the law wouldn’t prompt students to publish irresponsible journalism, as some opponents of the law fear.

She said student journalists “want to get it right, they want to do it right.”

Jonathan Kellett, principal of Tacoma’s Stadium High School, said that in his 15 years as a high school principal, he’s never censored a student article.

But “ultimately what happens in school comes back to the principal,” he said.

He said he relies on school publication advisers and teachers to guide students. But, he added, “I do look at my role somewhat as editor in chief.”

He said that instead of new legislation, school administrators, journalism advisers and others need more training on the issues.

Upthegrove said it’s incorrect to argue that public school administrators should act like editors or publishers in the private sector.

Publishers of newspapers such as The News Tribune are officers of their private corporations and may exercise whatever controls over their publications they see fit.

But school administrators are government officials, Upthegrove said. That means they are bound by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government control of the press.

There was a lot of discussion Saturday about who would be liable for articles published by student newspapers if the law passes.

Kellett said he’s not sure school officials would be safe from lawsuits. Because taxpayer money contributes to the operation of many student publications, he said, school officials would likely be named in lawsuits.

“Students have always been liable” for what they publish, said Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Virginia-based Student Press Law Center. “This law doesn’t change any of that.”

He agreed that plaintiffs might be reluctant to sue if their only target is a 16-year-old student, and not the deep pockets of a public school district or a university. But that shouldn’t restrict the student’s free-speech rights, he said.

He said plaintiffs may seek a correction or a retraction of an article, rather than money. Student publications can buy libel insurance, he said. And organizations such as the Washington News Council can mediate disputes between student publications and their audiences.

a look at student free-speech bill

House Bill 1307 would:

• Apply only to public schools and colleges.

• Prohibit censorship of high school student publications by school officials unless they find obscenity, libel, invasion of privacy or incitement to break the law or school rules.

• Allow high schools, but not colleges, to review materials before publication.

• Make student editors responsible for determining the news, opinions, feature content and advertising content of their publications.

• Exempt school officials and governing boards from being held responsible in court for what is published in student media, unless they alter content beforehand.

• Give school journalists and their parents the right to sue schools if the students’ free speech rights are violated.

article originally published at http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/story/6353270p-5669944c.html.

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