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Lawmakers argue student journalists get no special protections


Legislation designed to protect student journalists from censorship has hit a roadblock Thursday amid criticism from some lawmakers that they’re not entitled to those protections.

House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, yanked SB 1384 from consideration after more than an hour of debate over its merits. Allen said he was unsure whether there were sufficient votes on the floor for approval.

Allen said the measure still could be resurrected. But he said Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, who crafted the legislation and got it approved unanimously in the Senate, is going to have to work to convince some House foes to drop their opposition.

SB 1384 would declare that student editors — and not administrators – “are responsible for determining the content of school-sponsored media.” More to the point, the legislation would prevent administrators of traditional public and charter schools from censoring publications and preventing publication except under narrow circumstances.

It also would spell out that university and community college administrators have no right to block distribution of a publication. The only times that would be allowed for public schools is if the material is libelous, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates state or federal law, or “creates the imminent danger of inciting students to violate the law or district regulations or materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the public school.”

And even then, the school would have the “burden of providing lawful justification without undue delay.”

Yee got the Senate to approve her bill in February after detailing her own experience in 1992 when she was a 17-year-old senior student at Greenway High School. Yee, a reporter and cartoonist for the Demon Dispatch, said there were “numerous times” when administrators refused to let items remain in the paper before it went to print, apparently because they believed they “shed a bad light on the school.”

Some House members, however, did not share her views that such protections are appropriate.

“We don’t even need the bill,” said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert.

He said the First Amendment already exists.

“If schools are violating the First Amendment, then it’s an actionable offense,” Farnsworth said.

Whether that right to sue exists for student-journalists, however, is not clear.

During testimony in the Senate, Peggy Gregory of Greenway High school, who said she has taught journalism and advised student papers for 36 years, told lawmakers that student press freedom was the law of the land following a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that it was protected by the First Amendment. But nearly 20 years later, she said, the same court partly reversed itself, declaring that student newspapers do not have the same constitutional rights as other publications.

“The result was censorship,” she said.

The bigger problem for Yee is convincing colleagues that students, particularly in high school, should get the same rights and privileges as professionals.

Sen. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, a self-employed artist, told colleagues how his high school teachers told him to learn all he could “to be able to express what I thought.” And Bowers said he teaches skills like welding to help people become competent.

“But I tell them, ‘You become a welder when you’ve got the certificate in your hand, when you are hired, somebody’s indemnifying your work,’” he said. “But you’re not a welder until then.”

Bowers compared the idea of students learning journalism being considered real journalists is akin to people who conclude that their ability to use finger paints makes them an artist.

“I have, in fact, seen work done by elephants and kangaroos in the National Gallery, where they put paint and have them walk around on large canvasses,” he said. “And I suppose they would be artists.’”

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, told members of the Republican-dominated House they should see the legislation as a protection against liberal viewpoints. He said some students testified in the Senate that quotes in political stories that appeared to favor Donald Trump were excised from stories.

This isn’t the first time Yee has tried to get such a proposal through the legislature.

After her experience at Greenway High School she convinced Sen. Stan Furman, D-Phoenix, to sponsor a similar measure, actually getting it through the Senate. But it died when it did not get a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee.

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