For the last decade, student journalists lobbied for a law that would give them the final call on what publishes in their school newspapers. They may be closer to getting one.
A few weeks ago, Mariah Valles skipped her classes at Central Washington University, drove through Snoqualmie Pass and headed west to Olympia.
By 8 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, she was at the state Capitol building, ready to testify in front of lawmakers for the third time in two years.
“I’m here to tell you one thing: Censored news is wrong,” she told the House Judiciary committee.
Valles, 18, is among the most vocal student advocates in the state for Senate Bill 5064, which would grant student editors full editorial control of school-sponsored media, with a few exceptions (such as content that is libelous or otherwise illegal).
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Called the “Zombie bill” among some critics for its endurance over the last decade, the “New Voices Act” has endured several stops and starts. Counting the 2017-2018 session, it’s been introduced four different times, in varying forms, by three different lawmakers since 2007. This year’s bill awaits a vote in the House of Representatives — the closest it’s come to the governor’s desk than ever before.
If it does make it all the way, Washington would become the last state on the West Coast to pass an “anti-Hazelwood” law, a reference to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which makes it legal for school administrators to censor content in school newspapers and other student-run media if they deem it inappropriate.
As it stands, some districts and schools across the state have a prior-review policy that requires principals or administrators to look over school-sponsored media before it’s published. That policy wasn’t in place at Auburn High School, where Valles attended school. But that didn’t stop her and other classmates from bringing the issue to Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, a few years ago.
Fain, the bill’s primary sponsor, said that while he was visiting with the student journalists at the school, he was impressed with the students’ drive to cover complex issues like racial segregation and administrative missteps in the school. The students were quick to tell him that, because the school didn’t have a prior-review policy, it gave them the freedom to tackle those kinds of issues.
“The most impactful contribution to this legislation has been the students,” said Fain, a former vice-chair for the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education committee. ”I think it’s pretty clear that as students are finding their voices in other parts of the country, there’s never been a more important time to give them the forum and freedom.” He posted a video last month on YouTube explaining the issue’s importance in 57 seconds, and co-authored an Op-Ed in The Seattle Times with Highline Public Schools superintendent Susan Enfield to promote the bill.
The secret to the bill’s immortality? Student journalists and their advisers, who have worked alongside the Washington Journalism Education Association (WJEA) to help pick up the pieces each time the bill is tabled.
In 2006, Brian Schraum was a Running Start student attending Green River Community College and Enumclaw High School when he approached then-state Rep. Dave Upthegrove about sponsoring a bill.
By the time the bill was introduced to the Legislature in 2007, Schraum was a freshman at Washington State University. He tracked the bill’s progress from his dorm room — which he said felt like “command central.”
“I was banging out emails, coordinating with people in Olympia, D.C. and across Washington, keeping tabs on what was happening,” Schraum wrote in an email. “ … 18-year-old me was pretty dumbfounded by how easy it was to reach out to an elected official, bring an issue to their attention, and start working on a solution.”
The bill eventually died in a Senate committee, but Schraum, who is now 30 years old and working at Arizona State University, still keeps tabs on the effort from afar.
At the same hearing Valles attended Feb. 14, several other students came forward to testify.
“We’re students, but that doesn’t prevent us from reporting like adults,” testified Haley Keizur, editor of the Viking Vanguard, the student newspaper at Puyallup High School. “If articles are written journalistically and ethically sound, there’s no reason why students shouldn’t be able to hear the news from their peers.” The Puyallup School District has a mandatory prior-review policy.
The Viking Vanguard’s previous editor, Jaxon Owens, told Education Lab last year that prior review encourages students to self-censor and not pursue stories out of fear they will be vetoed by the principal. He pointed to a 2010 lawsuit against the district as one of the reasons why the policy is in place. It was filed by students who were upset over being quoted in an article about oral sex in the Emerald Ridge High School newspaper.
The student plaintiffs lost the suit because reporters had received consent before publishing their names. Although this version of the bill protects districts and school officials from lawsuits as a result of student-produced content, incidents like this are what gives the bill’s critics — generally school administrators and principals — some pause.
Gary Kipp, the executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals, says he’s more concerned about potentially embarrassing content for students, not school leadership. The organization, along with the Washington State School Directors’ Association, has testified against the bill before. This session, both are staying out of the fray but still have concerns.
“High-school students are sometimes 13 or 14 years old,” said Kipp. “They’re not always envisioning the consequences of what people say.”
Kipp also takes issue with a section of the bill that prevents principals from reassigning journalism advisers as a result of student media content. But it’s not for the reasons you’d think, he says.
“If the student newspaper only covers one side of an issue, then I would like to have the ability to have them (the journalism adviser) teach Shakespeare instead of English,” he said.
Kathy Schrier, a longtime executive director for WJEA, has been organizing advocates and promoting awareness about anti-student censorship legislation for more than a decade. She says that section is there to protect advisers, who sometimes face threats to their employment or intimidation while defending their students from censorship.
“They can still move teachers around, but not for the reason of publishing,” she said.
On Wednesday, as the bill awaited discussion on the House floor, Schrier expressed her nervousness over the bill. Running WJEA, bringing busy teachers together for unpaid advocacy and keeping tabs of every iteration of the bill has taken a toll. If it fails, she said she’s not sure if she can keep it up for another year.
Sen. Fain says he is.
“I’m going to keep running this bill until it passes.” And once it does, he said, he’s going to hand the pen Gov. Jay Inslee uses to sign the bill to a student who crossed the mountains to testify on behalf of her fellow student journalists: Mariah Valles.