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House moves bill giving student journalists same rights as professionals

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The state House voted 41-19 Monday to guarantee free speech to student journalists despite claims it will give “children” more rights than their professional adult counterparts enjoy.

SB 1384 pretty much requires college and high school administrators to take a hands-off approach to what writers and cartoonists for student newspapers publish with the guidance of their teachers and advisers. They would be allowed to intercede only under several narrow circumstances.

And even in the case of high school papers, administrators could block publication only briefly, and only after providing justification.

That alarmed Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert.

“These are children,” he said.

“They don’t have the maturity,” Farnsworth continued. “That’s why minors can’t sign contracts.”

He said these high school newspapers are being put out as part of a classroom exercise.

More to the point, Farnsworth said the papers reflect on the school. And he said administrators need the ability to decide what is appropriate.

That’s not the conclusion of Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, the sponsor of the legislation. In fact, she told colleagues during hearings on her bill that it was her experience as a high school journalist in the 1990s whose stories and cartoons were censored by administrators that led her to believe there needs to be greater press freedom.

During Monday’s vote, Rep. Ray Martinez, D-Phoenix, reminded colleagues about students at Pittsburg High School in Kansas who went digging into the credentials of the school’s new principal. She was forced to resign after the reporters unearthed the fact that advanced degrees she claimed in her resume to get the job came from a university that apparently was not accredited.

“I think there are a lot of folks out there that have a lot of talent,” Martinez said. “And I think that’s where good journalism comes from.”

Farnsworth said he foresees darker issues.

“What about a student journalist who advocates for abortion?” he asked colleagues. “How does this prevent that?”

A strict reading of the legislation suggests it does not.

The measure says the only things not protected include libelous or slanderous material, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violations of federal or state law, or acts that create the “imminent danger” of students breaking the law or disrupting the “orderly operation” of the school.

And SB 1384 says the only time publication can be halted is in the case of high school papers. But even then the school “has the burden of providing lawful justification without undue delay.”

Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, has a different scenario he thinks will emerge if student papers suddenly are unshackled from administrative oversight.

Stringer said Yee has sold the measure to Republican colleagues at least in part on her belief that some of the voices that have been stifled have been on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

“That’s not my experience,” he told colleagues. “You think our public schools are full of conservative faculty and conservative students that are being repressed and silenced?”

Stringer suggested that he might be able to support some sort of press freedom legislation as it applies to college students and their publications.

“High school journalists can be as young as 13 or 14 years old,” he said. “So I would ask you if it really makes sense to allow minors to have statutorily protected free speech and to limit the ability of school administrators to determine whether publications in a tax-supported student newspaper are appropriate.”

At one time student journalists and their publications did have the same legal protections as their professional counterparts. That followed a landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring student press freedom to be absolute.

But nearly 20 years later the same court partly reversed itself, declaring that student newspapers do not have the same constitutional rights as other publications. The justices said that school officials can exercise editorial control over both style and content of school-sponsored papers as long as it is related to legitimate concerns over school operations.

The measure now returns to the Senate to vote on the changes made by the House; if approved, it then goes to the governor.

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