Washington could become one of about a dozen states to pass legislation in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave administrators control over what gets published in school media.
OLYMPIA — Amid a national push, Washington state lawmakers are reintroducing a bill that would protect student journalists’ free speech in school-sponsored media at public schools and colleges.
Washington could become one of about a dozen states to pass legislation in response to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gave administrators control over what gets published in school media.
Senate Bill 5064, introduced by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, would designate school media as “public forums for expression” and make students responsible for determining content so long as it is not slanderous or libelous, unjustly invades privacy, violates federal or state law or encourages students to break school rules or commit crimes.
“It’s about expanding the culture of freedom of speech and freedom of the press so that more students have an appreciation of that early on,” Fain said. “Beyond that, we need watchdogs.”
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Under the measure, student media advisers also could not be terminated, transferred or otherwise disciplined for refusing to censor student journalists.
“I want to bring more attention to why it is important to go into journalism, and why it’s important to do that job really well,” Fain said. “And, the best way you can do that job well is when you are trained to do that job and to shoulder the responsibility of doing it well from the get-go.”
Fain, alongside 13 other state lawmakers, listened to public testimony for the bill Thursday.
Jaxon Owens, a 17-year-old senior at Puyallup High School, testified in support in front of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee.
Owens, the editor-in-chief of the Viking Vanguard student newspaper, told The Associated Press his principal reviews almost every issue before it gets published.
“He just kind of flips through it to make sure that everything is OK,” he said. “We do an intense vetting process in everything we do no matter if it’s print, web or social media.”
Owens said if the bill passes, “I really doubt we will abuse it. But we will continue to strive and grow as journalists and grow to our full potential as writers and as young, competent men and women.”
Jerry Bender of the Association of Washington School Principals opposed the bill, but only for high-school students. He says it is a “student safety issue.”
Bender, who served as a principal for 10 years at Centralia High School, said he believes college students have mastered the craft well enough that they don’t need as much supervision, but a high-school publication should be reviewed. “If I am going to be there when the plane crashes, I’d like to be there when it takes off,” he said.
In an interview with AP, Bender mentioned a case where the “plane crashed hard.”
He said students at Puyallup’s Emerald Ridge High School in 2008 were “crucified by their peers and school” when the newspaper included the names and sexual histories of students in its edition about oral sex. The affected students sued the Puyallup School District, but a Pierce County jury ruled the First Amendment protected the student newspaper. The measure being considered by Washington lawmakers specifies that school officials would be protected from civil or criminal liability stemming from content in school-sponsored media.
Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, said if schools are concerned about liability issues with this bill, they should get rid of their football teams and cheerleaders, which generally result in the most lawsuits filed against institutions.
Free-speech legislation for student journalists has been expanding throughout the country. In 2007, following Washington state’s initial bill proposal, Oregon unanimously passed a similar student-expression law prohibiting administrative censorship of journalism. Since then, 10 other states passed such legislation, and bills have also been filed in Vermont, Missouri and Indiana.