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Bill protecting student journalists from censorship clears key hurdle

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A bid to guarantee First Amendment rights to student journalists cleared a critical hurdle on April 27 despite claims by some lawmakers that students aren’t responsible enough to handle them.

But a critical final vote remains.

SB1384 would spell out in Arizona law that student journalists have freedom of speech and the press in school-sponsored media, even if the publication is supported by the public school, community college or university, and even if the paper is part of a class.

There would be some curbs against libel, unwarranted invasion of privacy, violations of law or creating “imminent danger” of inciting students to break statutes or rules. And the legislation even permits officials at public schools – but not colleges or universities – to block distribution if any of those limits are violated.

Even with that, however, some lawmakers argued against the legislation.

“It is the responsibility of us, as capable adults, to have some say over what students can say and at what level they can criticize governments, schools, principals absolutely free of any of the good sense that should accompany those kinds,” said Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale.

He lashed out at movements – mainly on college campuses but none here in Arizona – to block some conservatives from speaking.

“At the high school level, they are not capable of absolutism, absolute total free speech, without adult supervision,” he said. And Lawrence argued even that may not be enough.

“The adult supervision, thus far, has been, unfortunately, opposed to conservative thought,” he said. “At the high school level, at the college level, individuals with conservative thoughts are kept from speaking.”

All that, Lawrence continued, works against the kind of freedom for student journalists that SB1384 would allow.

Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, called it “a very bad bill.”

“Let’s remember that student publications are taxpayer supported,” he said, particularly at the high school level. “The school authorities need to have some control over the content of what goes into a student newspaper.”

And Stringer said the protections could extend to “student journalists” as young as 13.

But Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, had a different take.

“It’s a funny inconvenience about the First Amendment,” he said. “In addition to being sacrosanct in our Constitution, when it comes to teaching students, it’s an incredible teaching tool. And I don’t believe you can fully teach students who are trying to learn how to be responsible journalists unless you respect the First Amendment.”

The legislation was crafted by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, who told of being censored herself in the 1990s as a high school journalist.

Her measure is designed to get around a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which concluded that the normal rights of journalists do not extend to students.

“We hold that educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns,” wrote Justice Byron White for the court.

SB1384 would establish that, at least in Arizona, administrators do not have the same level of control.

Thursday’s preliminary approval came on a voice vote. It still needs a final roll call vote before going back to the Senate to review changes made in the House.

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