After decades of advocacy in the state Legislature, this generation of Washington’s student journalists claimed their First Amendment rights.
For decades, student journalists have been fighting the good fight in the Washington Legislature against censorship of school-sponsored media. The latest group finally won back their First Amendment rights this month, when the Legislature passed and the governor signed the New Voices Act.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, at the request of student journalists across Washington, eliminates before-publication review by school administrators of student publications or broadcasts.
The New Voices Act was the fourth attempt this past decade to respond to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the justices ruled that school-sponsored expression, including school newspapers, doesn’t occur in a traditional public forum and therefore may be regulated.
School administrators argued they need to control content as a learning experience for student journalists. But free speech is clearly the dominant issue in this case. High schools and colleges need student newspapers that tell truth to power, even when that truth is uncomfortable.
Students testified in legislative hearings that school rules requiring administrative approval of student publications can lead students to avoid some of the tough topics they really want to tackle, such as politics and sexuality.
In 2010, four students sued the Puyallup School District after being included in an Emerald Ridge High School newspaper story that quoted them talking about their sex lives. They lost the federal lawsuit, but the case led school administrators to tighten school publication rules.
Jaxon Owens, former editor of the Viking Vanguard, the Puyallup High School newspaper, told The Seattle Times that the district’s prior-review policy leads students to not pursue stories out of fear they will be vetoed by the principal.
The new Washington law does not exempt the work of these young journalists from libel and broadcast-decency rules, and they are prohibited from inciting violence. It also protects districts and school officials from legal action based on student reporting.
Most student journalists still will be working with the guidance of newspaper advisers, and those journalism teachers will also be protected against reassignment or firing when school officials are unhappy with student reporting.
Similar laws have passed in 13 other states, working to put the responsibility for student journalism back in the hands of the students. The Student Press Law Center commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Hazelwood decision with a state-by-state campaign to change the law.
Congratulations to the students who have testified so eloquently over the years. They leave a tremendous legacy to future newspaper editors and broadcasters in schools and colleges across Washington.