February 15, 2007

Hands Off The High School Paper

Students and First Amendment advocates might call it censorship. School officials may be more likely to see it as responsible guidance. In either case, the ability of educators to monitor or edit school publications has often been a source of controversy.

Now, a bill making its way through the Washington state legislature would sharply limit a public educational institution’s authority and control over student journalism.

Introduced in January 2007 by Representative Dave Upthegrove, Washington state House Bill 1307 would prohibit censorship of both public high school and college newspapers by school officials—except under extreme circumstances like obscenity, libel, invasion of privacy or an incitement to break the law or school rules.

The flip side is that, if the bill passes, school officials cannot be held legally responsible for what gets printed, leaving students as the only culpable party. The only way school officials could be held liable is if the school interfered with or altered the content, says Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center (SPLC),

While the bill applies to high school and college student media, Representative Upthegrove, in an email to the PEJ, said high school is the key component because the state’s four-year public universities have already adopted policies that recognize the student papers as “public forums” not subject to administration review.

“I have heard horror stories from students and faculty at the high school level,” Upthegrove wrote, citing an Everett, Washington high school paper that shut down after the principal asserted the right to approve articles before publication.

The Student Press Law Center—a non-profit group that advises student journalists on First Amendment issues—receives an average of five to ten calls a week from high school journalists seeking legal advice about media censorship, according to legal adviser Hiestand. It handles about half that number from colleges.

“This bill is a good compromise between protecting the free expression and press rights of students and what the courts have decided is the school’s duty to protect order in the school,” said Steve Matson, Northwest Regional Director of the Journalism Education Association and journalism teacher at the Charles Wright Academy.

Some opponents of the bill say it goes too far in giving students editorial control. Even professional journalists have to work with editors and publishers, they note. “Absolute freedom for high school journalists would offer an inaccurate view of how real news organizations operate,” Gary Kipp, Executive Director of the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP), told J-Ideas, a website about high school journalism.

The principals’ association also argues that because high school newspapers are publicly funded and created on school property during school hours, they should be subject to a different level of scrutiny than privately held media and to an administrative review like any other school class.

The Supreme Court ruling that established the current legal framework for scholastic journalism came from the 1998 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case.The Court allowed school officials to censor high school student publications if they could show their actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The Court also said administrators could censor material they deemed “poorly written,” “biased,” “inappropriate,” or “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.”

In 2005, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision, Hosty v. Carter, ruled that Hazelwood could be applied to college student media as well.

In response, last fall California passed a law almost identical to the Washington legislation, except California’s does not include a specific provision to protect journalism advisors from legal responsibility. Five other states—Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts—have passed similar legislation to California’s, but only applying to high schools.

On January 26, the Washington House Judiciary Committee passed the bill by a 7-4 vote along strict party lines, with Democrats in favor of the measure. With the Washington Senate and House controlled by Democrats, there is a sense that the prospects for passage are fairly good.

Nevertheless, no one is declaring victory until the votes are counted.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Hiestand, said. “There’s a lot of apprehension and misunderstanding about the bill.”