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Lawmaker: Bill protecting student journalists flawed

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A House panel voted 10-1 Monday to protect student journalists despite objections by one lawmaker who feared giving too much power to “children.”

SB 1384 would limit the ability of administrators to censor university, community college and public school papers. About the only time they could block publication would be in cases of libel, unwarranted invasions of privacy, violations of law of where there is “imminent danger” of inciting students or disruption of operations.

And that prior restraint would be allowed only for public school papers.

Members of the House Education Committee heard from a parade of high school journalists who cited their own experiences having stories edited or quashed by administrators. That included Henry Gorton at Sunnyslope High School who said he was barred from reporting the views of Trump supporters about issues of illegal immigration amid concerns that undocumented students would feel threatened.

Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, told Gorton that story might actually gain him support at the Republican-controlled legislature.

Rep. David Stringer (Capitol Media Services 2017 file photo by Howard Fischer)

Rep. David Stringer (Capitol Media Services 2017 file photo by Howard Fischer)

But Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, called the legislation “well intentioned” but also “flawed.”

Stringer indicated he had no real problem with providing protections for college journalists. But this bill, he said, goes too far.

“I think it’s a big mistake to include high schools and student newspapers in high schools with colleges and universities,” he said. “There’s a very, very fundamental difference between high schools which are full of children, which are full of minors, and colleges and universities where we’re dealing with adults.”

And Stringer specifically objected to a provision to protect faculty advisers from administrative retaliation solely for either protecting student journalists from exercising their rights in the legislation or refusing to infringe on conduct that is constitutionally protected.

“I can see the need to protect students, to allow students to have freedom of speech,” he told Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, the sponsor of the legislation.

He said it is common knowledge there is a strong liberal bias in many schools.

“And I can foresee the unintended consequence of protecting faculty members who are influencing the students, or perhaps expressing their own views and biases, using public resources to propagandize their own liberal views through what purport to be student publications,” Stringer said.

Stringer was not dissuaded by Lori Hart, a faculty adviser at Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, who argued such protections are necessary.

“Advisers do get fired from teaching at the school if they go ahead and publish something that is not approved by the school,” she said.

Hart said it’s possible that if students get additional legal protections it might not be necessary to extend some sort of employment immunity to their advisers. But she told Stringer that’s not the case now.

“I just know that right now teachers need that protection,” Hart said.

This is actually the second time Yee has advanced such legislation. The first time was in 1992 as a high school student journalist who came to the Capitol to seek protections after she said her own work at Greenway High School was being censored.

She got the bill through the Senate only to have it die in the House. Yee told colleagues she did not realize that until last year.

Yee, like Hart, defended the protection for faculty members.

“They, too, receive intimidation from their school district administrators who tell them, ‘Don’t print the story,’ ” she said.

“And they fight against that because they’re protecting the student,” Yee said. “They’re saying, ‘The story is a valid story, it’s got both sides of the issue, it’s black and white, it’s appropriate to go to print.”

Stringer warned Gorton there’s a potential downside in getting the freedom he and other students seek: Administration simply shutters the paper.

“You do see the risk that if we statutorily guarantee you, to high school students, adolescents, this blanket kind of immunity and free speech protection that it could be totally self-defeating and have very unintended consequences that you basically lose your forum for expressing any opinions or journalistic ideas,” Stringer said.

Gorton, however, was undeterred. He said if administration controls the content, the paper is no longer a “forum” for students.

“Under censorship, it’s not a forum but an echo chamber that’s more propaganda and more a newsletter rather than a newspaper, something that only advances the interests of our administrators,” he said.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she was concerned that the legislation did not specifically allow administrators to keep profanity and nudity out of papers.

But David Cullier, dean of the journalism school at the University of Arizona, said there are court cases which already give public school administrators the right to prevent publication of such items.

The measure, which already has gained unanimous Senate approval, now needs a vote of the full House.

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