While they haven’t suffered the kind of censorship seen at some Washington schools, journalism students at Eisenhower High School’s online newspaper are among those watching proposed legislation to assure their right to free expression.
Backers of the bill say not having to worry about a school administrator killing stories gives students greater ownership of their work and helps help them become better journalists at a time when media credibility is under attack.
“Fake news is about getting more clicks,” said Diego Lopez, editor of the school’s Five-Star Journal. “When you grow as a student journalist in a place where you can’t tell the whole truth, that is where (you will) go.”
For the fifth attempt in a decade, a bill is before the Legislature to undo the effects of a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision granting school administrators license to censor student publications for “educational purposes.”
In that case, the court ruled that a St. Louis high school principal did not violate students’ First Amendment rights when he ordered stories about divorce and teen pregnancy pulled from the school newspaper.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., said schools around the country have since used the law to quash any student newspaper story they felt cast their schools in a negative light.
And, LoMonte said, it has happened in Washington state.
In 2007, a Vashon Island High School administrator killed a story relating concerns about a coach, arguing that the school newspaper was not an appropriate place to criticize district staff.
In 2008, the Puyallup School District instituted a prior-review policy after a lawsuit was filed by subjects of a story about teen sex published in the Emerald Ridge High School newspaper. In the lawsuit, the court ruled in favor of the student journalists, finding that the people interviewed consented to having the information published, and the district was not liable because it did not screen the story in advance.
For the second time in as many years, state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5064, which would restrict administrators’ abilities to kill stories. The bill passed the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee on Thursday afternoon, and is awaiting assignment to the full Senate for a vote.
In testimony Jan. 19 before a Senate committee, Fain said his bill is important in educating students on civics.
“The culture of free expression is critically important to our democratic institutions,” Fain said. “And the culture of respect for the journalistic arts is equally important to having a functioning democracy.”
Allowing students freedom to practice responsible journalism will help prepare student journalists to enter the profession, Fain said.
The bill, however, does not give students carte blanche to write whatever they want.
It would allow school officials to stop stories that are libelous or obscene, unnecessarily invade people’s privacy, incite students to break the law or school policies, or could cause an actual disruption to school operations.
LoMonte said the law brings student speech back to the standard the Supreme Court set in 1969 when it upheld the right of Des Moines, Iowa, students to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.
Fain’s bill would allow a student adviser to teach students professional standards of English and journalism. It would also protect the adviser from discipline for refusing to suppress students’ rights to express themselves.
At Eisenhower, publications adviser Duff DeWitt said administrators have allowed him to exercise his best professional judgment as he helps the students put their publication together.
“The only thing that I try to watch is tone,” said DeWitt, who is in his first year advising the students.
But the student journalists say that not having to worry about the possibility of an administrator killing a story would be helpful.
“It would be more validating,” said Karlee Van De Venter, who edits school news for the Five-Star Journal.
Lopez and DeWitt said allowing students to practice journalism without censorship helps them to know how to hold authority accountable, as well as present truth rather than fake stories.
It also helps students become more critical readers of news, LoMonte said, especially at a time when fake stories show up on social media and politicians use the “fake” label to discredit unflattering coverage.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, one of the bill’s 13 co-sponsors, agrees.
“It gives them the opportunity to understand the true meaning of their words and how it can affect others,” King said.
But the bill has its detractors.
During the Jan. 19 hearing, Jerry Bender, government relations director for the Association of Washington School Principals, said administrators should be partners in all school programs, including the journalism program.
He said administrators need to be involved in case something starts to go wrong.
“If there is going to be a plane crash, I want to be there when the plane takes off,” Bender said. “This bill cuts the principal out of that discussion.”
But LoMonte said that argument does not carry much weight, based on the experience in states that have passed similar legislation, such as Oregon. He said the horror stories of student journalists running amok and causing problems for the school have not materialized.
“There are tons of safety nets built in,” LoMonte said.
He noted that schools don’t restrict the football teams to two-hand touch, even though there is a risk of serious injury, because they want students to be prepared for the rough-and-tumble world of collegiate sports.
Also, having a school administrator — a government official — serve as a de facto publisher runs afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition on government interference with the press, LoMonte said.
King said the bill strikes a balance between protecting the students’ rights, while shielding districts from liability.
Fain’s bill also exempts school districts from legal liability for anything student journalists write in their publications.
With 10 states having passed similar laws, and it moving through legislatures in other states, LoMonte and others are confident this could be the year Washington’s bill passes.
Kathy Schrier, director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said the fact that this year’s session is longer due to the budget discussions means there’s a greater chance it will advance. It also has bipartisan support, with nine Democrats and five Republicans supporting it as sponsor and co-sponsors.