OLYMPIA — The First Amendment rights of high school and college journalists are up for debate in Washington state, as lawmakers consider whether young scribes should have the same free-press rights as their professional colleagues.
Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, has introduced a bill that would ensure student journalists aren't censored and would not allow public schools or universities to discipline or fire a student media adviser for refusing to censor students.
"I don't think you lose your freedom of speech rights just because you're young," Upthegrove said. "The right of free press is more important than the fear of inappropriate content."
The measure is set for a public hearing on Friday before the House Judiciary Committee.
The bill is in response to the 2005 Hosty v. Carter ruling by the 7th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Chicago. The court said administrators at Midwest universities could review student articles before publication if their student-run newspapers are published under the auspices of the college. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Even though that ruling only covered Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, student journalist Brian Schraum, wanted to pre-empt any similar issues in Washington.
The Washington State University student brought the issue to Upthegrove, who agreed student journalists needed a greater guarantee of protection.
"This really sets an appropriate tone that it's OK to challenge authority," said Schraum, who previously was a former editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Green River Community College. "It's really important that students feel like they can explore issues and express themselves. It's good preparation for actually going out there into the real world."
Washington would be following the lead of California, which after the Hosty ruling, moved quickly to pass a measure to prohibit college and university administrators from censoring student newspapers.
Five other states — Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Massachusetts — also have passed similar laws on high schools, all in response to a 1988 U.S. Supreme court ruling that school officials could censor school publications.
If passed, Washington state's law would be the first that would cover both high school and college press under the same statute, said Mike Hiestand, attorney and legal consultant for the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center.
"It would be the most comprehensive student press bill in the country at this point," he said.
Upthegrove's bill would offer slightly different protections to high school and college journalists.
High school principals could still ask to see student publications before they went to press but wouldn't be able to censor or stop publication unless the material was obscene, libelous or slanderous. School officials would not be responsible for what the student publications printed and could not be sued unless they altered the content.
A case that will go to trial later this year involves two Everett High School graduates and former editors of the student newspaper, The Kodak.
Claire Lueneburg and Sara Eccleston sued the school district in 2005, alleging violation of free speech and press rights after administrators requested prior review of each issue. Lueneburg said the principal objected to the masthead, which identified the Kodak as a "student forum" and that the publication was pulled when the students refused to change it.
The publication eventually went underground and was published with donations.
"I think it's vitally important that students are allowed to practice their rights as citizens," said Lueneburg, now 19 and a freshman at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
—The Associated Press