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Republican-led Arkansas approves even more protections for student journalists

Authority under the First Amendment, not school board policy

Just last month, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law several protections for college journalists that were needed after the Supreme Court unexpectedly applied a ruling on K-12 schools to colleges.

You’d think the Republican and his fellow Republicans who dominated state politics would be happy with this little bit of good PR. It turns out they wanted more.

Hutchinson signed another student press freedom bill into last week, focused on high school students. It now explicitly protects the expression of students under the authority of the First Amendment, which may sound redundant but is actually a big improvement.

The law previously “required individual Arkansas school boards to develop media policies and bound student media outlets to follow the policy,” according to the Student Press Law Center:

That change was significant, because it gives student media outlets stronger legal footing compared to when they were working at the behest of a school policy, said Steve Listopad, a journalism instructor and adviser to student media at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

“If it had ever went to the courts, students wouldn’t have a leg to stand on,” Listopad said.

MORE: Arkansas expands 1A protections for students in state law

The new law also recognizes every form of student media, including blogs, radio stations and podcasts, by replacing the traditional and narrow term “publication” with the open-ended term “media.”

Unlike last month’s bill that was signed into law, however, this one doesn’t include protections against retaliation for student media advisors if students publish something that annoys administrators. (The bills are part of a movement known as New Voices.)

Arkansas is ahead of its Republican neighbor Texas, where a similar Democrat-introduced bill easily passed a House committee last week but has yet to be approved by another committee that decides which bills reach the floor, SPLC reported.

Its chances are perceived to be stronger with the addition of its first Republican sponsor, Rep. Scott Sanford, whose district includes a high school that made national news for repeatedly censoring its student newspaper, Eagle Nation Online.

Principal John Burdett of Prosper High School nixed stories that were not “uplifting” or lacked “positivity,” and the school apparently retaliated against the paper’s advisor, Lori Oglesbee-Petter, by not renewing her contract.

Read the SPLC reports.

MORE: High school cans journalism advisor because paper isn’t ‘uplifting’

IMAGE: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.