Education Lab talked to Jaxon Owens, editor of the Puyallup High School student newspaper, about what it’s like for the principal to have veto power over what will be published.

Share story

For the third time in a decade, a bill aimed at giving student journalists in Washington editorial control over school publications is under consideration in Olympia. If Senate Bill 5064 makes it to the governor’s desk and he signs it, editors of student publications will be able to make the final call on what goes to print (so long as what is being published isn’t libelous, inciting school-wide disruption or otherwise illegal.)

As it stands, some must first get permission from school or district officials.

Other states, including Oregon and California, have passed similar laws.

In free-speech jargon, they’re commonly referred to as “anti-Hazelwood laws” — a reference to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier), in which the justices ruled that a Missouri high-school principal did not violate students’ First Amendment rights when he prohibited publication of stories he deemed inappropriate.

Student journalists in Washington have had their fair share of dealings with prior review. Some have gone to great lengths to evade censorship: In 2007, some student editors at high schools in the Everett School District went rogue, publishing and distributing papers off-campus.

Others, like Jaxon Owens, who edits The Viking Vanguard at Puyallup High School, begrudgingly put up with prior review. In January, Owens showed up at the state capitol with three other editors from the paper and testified in favor of the Senate bill.

The bill, which passed 54-4 in the Senate this month, now awaits a hearing in the House Committee on Education on Thursday. We spoke to Owens about how prior review affects his role at The Viking Vanguard, and why he thinks student press freedom is important.

(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What does the prior-review policy look like at your high school?

We release the paper once a month. And we lay the paper out over three days: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Wednesday, we set a meeting with [the principal, Dave Sunich]. Then he looks it over, and makes sure he’s OK with everything you put in it.

What sorts of content raise concerns with your principal?

When we’ve met with him so far, his big thing has been: Will I get an email from a parent about this? This past issue we did a focus on sexual assault, and we had an anonymous letter to the editor that contained vulgar language, and we had a long discussion (with the principal) over whether we wanted to publish the letter. He was generally accepting of our policy for publishing letters, but he was more resistant than we wanted him to be.

When was the last time your staff faced censorship?

In my two-and-a-half years at The Vanguard, we haven’t been censored. But because there’s the threat … that we might be subjected to prior review, it brings us to self-censorship. Almost every story we do is affected by self-censorship. It affects us subconsciously.

… If we give [the principal] something that was too harsh to handle, we’re worried about him just cutting the entire story.

What’s an example of self-censorship?

Last year we did a story where we surveyed teachers and students about the administration and the climate of the school. We were basically taking the temperature of our school because we’ve had three principals over the last four years. [Without prior review] we would’ve tackled it more head-on. There were questions we decided not to ask, out of caution for ourselves or our teachers. Part of this bill is protecting teachers. (Note: Bill 5064, in its latest form, includes a clause that protects school and district officials from legal action stemming from school-sponsored student media.)

Another topic we could never cover is oral sex because of what happened at Emerald Ridge. (Note: In 2010, students sued the Puyallup School District after they were quoted in an article about oral sex for the Emerald Ridge High School newspaper. The students lost the suit because reporters from the paper had received their consent before publishing their names.)

Why is it important to you for this bill to pass?

This bill may not affect my class, but I don’t want future classes to have this restriction. … I believe [journalism] needs to exist on a student level.

Do you think this bill will pass? How will you celebrate?

I feel pretty confident it will pass. As far as the celebration is concerned, I have not thought about that to be honest. It will definitely involve a hamburger and fries, I can guarantee you that.