Washington Student Journalists Descend On Olympia to Urge Passage of State Anti-Censorship Bill

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Supporters denounce partisan vote; claim school administrators are spreading misinformation about legislation.

Frankly, I'm mystified by why this issue has provoked such a partisan response

Mike Hiestand, a Ferndale, Wash. attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that provides free legal help to student journalists, said he is disappointed that Republican lawmakers have so far refused to support HB 1307.

The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-Des Moines), would be the first in the country to protect both high school and college students from excessive administrative censorship under the same statute.

Security personnel had to temporarily bar access to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room Tuesday morning after high school and college student journalists from across the state spilled into the hallways of the Senate Building while waiting to hear testimony on a bill that would limit the authority of public school administrators to censor student publications.

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts currently have laws that protect high school student publications from censorship. California recently enacted a law protecting college journalists as well. Oregon lawmakers are hearing testimony on a joint high school and college bill (HB 3279) today.

The Washington bill passed the state House of Representatives March 13 on a largely party-line vote, with some Republican lawmakers calling the legislation 'silly' and a 'waste of time' during the floor debate.

"Frankly, I'm mystified by why this issue has provoked such a partisan response," Hiestand explained. "The fact is I spend much of my time trying to defend the right of conservative or religious students to voice their ideas and opinions, which are often minority viewpoints and frequently targeted by school officials. Free speech is one issue that I'd think all Americans would support and not allow to be trumped by partisan party politics."

Hiestand, who helped draft the legislation and who testified at Tuesday's hearing, said opponents -- almost exclusively school principals and administrators -- have gone out of their way to spread misinformation about the bill.

"This bill does not give students a free pass to publish whatever they want," he said. "There are clearly defined limits. It's main purpose is simply to establish a more reasonable balance that allows students to publish a real newspaper that includes meaningful, responsible discussion of issues that are important to them rather than just the PR newsletter full of 'happy news' that many school officials now require."

A number of teacher groups have endorsed the bill, including the Washington Education Association and the Washington Journalism Education Association.

Hiestand said that the law protecting high school student journalists changed drastically following a 1988 Supreme Court decision that allows many school officials to censor student publications where they decide the content is 'poorly written' or 'inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.'

Hiestand said such vague, virtually meaningless standards give school officials too much discretion to censor information or student opinions 'they simply don't like.' He notes that calls to the Student Press Law Center from student journalists seeking legal help have risen five-fold since the decision was handed down.

In 2005, a federal appeals court in Illinois ruled that the 1988 Supreme Court standard also applied to college student publications. It was that ruling that led Brian Schraum, then an editor of the student newspaper at Green River Community College, to contact Upthegrove and ask if he would sponsor legislation that would better protect Washington students.

During his testimony, Upthegrove warned that schools today are not adequately preparing students to participate in a free society. He pointed to a 2006 national study by the Knight Foundation that found that nearly half of all teens polled felt it was okay for the government to approve commercial newspapers before they're printed.

Hiestand agrees. "The thing is, you reap what you sow. Students that are not allowed to reasonably exercise their free speech rights grow into adults that have no respect for free speech rights. I don't know, maybe that's what they want."

The Senate Judiciary Committee must vote on the measure by Friday or the bill will die.

Contacts:
Mike Hiestand
Attorney
(360) 325-8986
WA HB 1307 FAQ: http://www.studentpress.org/law.html
Zenger Consulting
http://www.zengerconsulting.com
mh@zengerconsulting.com

Rep. Dave Upthegrove
HB 1307 Sponsor
(360) 786-7868

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