First Amendment rights for student newspapers moves through Legislature: Student newspapers could get additional free speech protections

Lawmakers are considering adding protections for high school and college newspapers, allowing student journalists to determine their own content.

SB 5064, sponsored by Senator Joe Fain, R-Auburn, passed the Senate easily with a vote of 45-4 on Jan. 19. The bill was heard in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

“By passing this bill we would be free from our censorship fears and would be able to spend more time educating ourselves and our student body while reporting honestly and ethically,” Haley Keizur, social media editor of the Viking Vanguard, student newspaper of Puyallup High School.

Fain introduced the bill in 2016 and said he drafted the bill after meeting with journalism teachers and students at Auburn High School.

“There’s almost been an ideological battle that paints journalists as the bad guy,” he said. “I think we need to reflect on the damage that can do.”

The bill’s origins date back to 2005 when former legislator and now King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove introduced the bill in response to a 1988 U.S Supreme Court decision in a case that originated in St. Louis, Missouri, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that case the court ruled that high school educators can have editorial control over a school-sponsored newspaper when they have a legitimate educational concern. Those concerns include control over articles that are poorly written, biased, “unsuitable for immature audiences” or “inconsistent with the values of a civilized social order,” according to the court text.

Mike Hiestand, attorney and legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said the bill would turn back the clock on the Hazelwood decision to the less-strict Tinker standard.

That standard arose from a U.S. Supreme Court case in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines, and says that in order for a school to suppress free speech, the speech must “materially and substantially interfere” with class or the school’s operation. The Court ruled 7-2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

SB 5064 requires schools to follow the less strict standard but, Fain said, it ensures that advisers are still able to be involved in helping students avoid writing stories that might be libelous or an invasion of privacy, teaching them responsible pillars of journalism.

“In light of the battles over free speech, and the rights and roles of journalists today, this is a really important piece of legislation,” Fain said. “The next generation in this important profession can recognize both the right and the responsibility that they have to bear when it comes to their freedoms in this area.”

Jacoy Willis, a sophomore at the University of Washington studying political science and journalism, offered an example. The student newspaper at her former high school in Kenmore, Nordic News, wanted to run an article in response to a hazing incident at the school by a group called the “Naked Viks” but the administration stopped it. The incident drew national attention and Willis said the school administration would not allow the students to run a story about it in their paper.

Willis, who was editor-in- chief at the paper, said the story was about the psychology of hazing, its effects on the school, and how to identify and stop the behavior. The publication left the names of victims out and adhered to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, she said.

“Only our school can cover the details of our students, what they thought, why it happened to us, why they are scared to go to football games, and what it means for the future of school spirit; things that can’t be covered in national news,” she said.

Roz Thompson, speaking for the Association of Washington School Principals, said the association is concerned about the emotional safety of students. She said the bill should include protections from stories that could be hurtful to other students.

The bill also includes protections for school newspaper advisers. The bill would not allow administration to punish advisers for protecting students’ free speech rights but still allows for school officials to place and hire staff to best fit their needs.

SB 5064 is scheduled for an executive session in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Feb. 22, a day before the legislative cutoff date to pass bills out of committee from the opposite chamber. The bill has passed the senate in previous years but didn’t make it past the House Education Committee. Fain hopes this bill, with conversations about the First Amendment rights for students, will make it through the House Judiciary Committee this year.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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