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Democratic state follows lead of Republican governors who protect student press freedom

But Arizona’s executive stuns conservative colleagues with veto

Student journalists gained legal protections against school censorship in a few states during their most recent legislative sessions, and they are on the cusp of another victory in America’s tiniest state.

Amid the victories, the so-called New Voices bills have faced unexpected failures at the hands of politicians of both parties, who argued that student journalists might cause trouble if they can’t be censored.

Hours after the Rhode Island House unanimously approved its bill Thursday, the Senate followed suit and also unanimously approved its bill, which will head to Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk after the two versions are reconciled.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey parted ways with his fellow Republican governors last month to veto a New Voices bill with overwhelming support in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Its sponsor was a Republican lawmaker who had also been censored by her principal as a high school student journalist.

“We’re very hopeful that with a little more public engagement, particularly from students, that 2018 can be a banner year and that the bills that fell short this year will make it over the goal line,” Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte, whose group is helping shepherd the bills, told The College Fix in an email.

Fixing a legal precedent that blesses censorship

Student press freedom is enshrined in law in 12 states, with Rhode Island set to become the 13th assuming a reconciled bill and Raimondo’s signature.

Two Republican governors, Vermont’s Phil Scott and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, signed their bills into law last month. Both were sponsored by Democrats.

The Nevada bill’s approach was to “restore the state of play” to the Tinker standard enshrined by the Supreme Court in 1969, LoMonte told The Fix. Vermont’s bill was incorporated into a larger education bill and also restored Tinker, which protects all forms of student speech provided it does not cause a significant disruption to school functions.

MORE: Bills to protect student journalists more popular in conservative states

By sticking to Tinker, the bills essentially render moot the conflicting Hazelwood standard from 1988, under which the Supreme Court said a school does not infringe on the First Amendment when it exercises editorial control over a school newspaper.

The three most recent bills to clear their legislatures all include the same language to protect student journalists, especially high schoolers, as well as job security for their faculty advisers if they let through controversial content.

Advisers are recurring targets for administrators at both the secondary and postsecondary level when student journalists ruffle feathers.


The Vermont and Rhode Island bills, however, explicitly spell out unprotected expression in student publications, including “unwarranted invasion of privacy” and profanity.

Other bills were introduced in Michigan and New Jersey. Though neither legislature has held hearings on them, “we remain relatively optimistic that the New Jersey bill can advance in 2017 because it has very strong bipartisan sponsorship,” LoMonte said.

Bills were introduced in New York and Texas mainly as “discussion starting vehicles,” not intended to be taken up in earnest, he said, while legislation failed in Arizona, Indiana, Missouri and Washington.

‘Adult supervision and mentoring is most important’

Ducey’s veto of the Arizona bill sought to justify his record on speech issues while saying students weren’t yet mature enough to use their constitutional rights.

“The First Amendment is vital to American system of democracy, and I have a record of supporting legislation that protect these constitutional rights and opposing those that erode them,” he wrote in a brief veto statement.

“I also believe student journalists play an important role,” but the New Voices bill “could create unintended consequences,” he said. On high school campuses, “adult supervision and mentoring is most important.”

It was that adult supervision that nearly tanked an expose written by Kimberly Yee when she was a high school journalist in 1991.

Yee documented drug dealing in the campus parking lot, but her principal refused to let the article run, Roll Call reported. She later testified before a legislative committee that was considering a student press freedom bill in direct response to the principal’s censorship.

MORE: North Dakota protects student journalists from censorship

Now a Republican senator and sponsor of the Arizona New Voices bill, Yee said she was “disappointed” her governor vetoed the bill but “I will always stand with our student journalists in defense of their First Amendment rights.”

In a statement given to The Fix by her office, Yee said it was “my honor to advocate on their behalf in 1992 as a censored student journalist and even more so today, 25 years later.”

She told the Student Press Law Center she’d talk to stakeholders before introducing the bill again in the next session.

Ducey told Arizona Capitol Times he knows “Kimberly’s history on this personally,” but she was censored “over 20 years ago.”

No one was passionate about it

The situation in Washington state, where New Voices bills have died the past two sessions, was more complicated.

Last year’s bill faced determined opposition from a liberal Seattle-area senator who killed it in committee. Washington has a Democratic governor and split Legislature.

This spring, the new bill died more quietly when a House committee declined to vote on it “despite overwhelming positive testimony” during a public hearing two weeks earlier, SPLC reported.

There was not a passionate advocate for the bill in the House, and lawmakers seemed confused about its provisions, asking about “student liability for editorial decisions” when it is administrators who have been historically liable, Washington Journalism Education Association Director Kathy Schrier told SPLC. The bill provided explicit protections for administrators.

In the next session, advocates will work on getting simultaneous support in both chambers, Schrier said.

MORE: Ousted for defending her students, journalism adviser renominated by peers

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About the Author
Jeremiah Poff -- Franciscan University of Steubenville