Rights and Responsibilities Collide: Student Free Speech Bill Struggles

Schools have the responsibility, student journalists want the freedom

A bipartisan bill that would expand the First Amendment rights of student journalists in public high schools and universities has been met with opposition from school administrators who say they must maintain editorial control over school-sponsored media.

The legislation's prospects are questionable this late in the legislative season, even though the bill was advanced to the Senate floor and has support from civil liberties organizations and student journalist groups.

Senate Bill 848, the "Student free press and civics readiness act," was introduced in March by Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. The bill would prohibit school administrators from censoring school-sponsored publications unless the content is obscene, unlawful, or defamatory.

“A student journalist has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media are supported financially by the school or public institution of higher education, are produced using its facilities, or are produced in conjunction with a class in which the student is enrolled,” the bill reads.

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The bill would also prohibit faculty advisors from being punished by school districts for protecting students’ rights against censorship. But colleges and high school administrators have concerns about responsibility.

In March, SB 848 was advanced from the Senate Judiciary Committee with a recommendation that it be passed. Support for the bill crosses party lines with Sens. Pat Colbeck, R-Canton, Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Steve Bieda, D-Warren co-sponsoring, But Jones said he’s unsure the bill will be voted on prior to the lame-duck session.

One organization with concerns is the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, which opposes the legislation because it fears it would undermine the authority of school administrators.

The association testified against the bill, and in a post on its website, cites a U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

“The case was a landmark decision that allows school officials to exercise editorial control over school-sponsored student expression,” the post read. “The Court said that schools should, for example, be able to consider whether the speech in question is consistent with their educational mission and appropriate for the maturity level of the audience.”

The group added that SB 848 would go against the Supreme Court case and restrict school administrators' ability to not publish school-sponsored media.

The Michigan Association of School Administrators (MASA) also opposed the legislation, saying school districts should have the same power as publication editors.

“MASA is opposed to SB 848 because it would significantly hamper local districts' ability to appropriately edit the content of student newspapers, yearbooks, and other school publications,” said Chris Wigent, the association’s executive director.

“Under current law, a school district essentially has the same oversight power as a newspaper editor or magazine publisher. Students should have the right to express themselves, but they also must learn the limits of what they are legally and ethically allowed to put into print,” he said. “Even trained journalists don’t always know that limit, which is why every professional news organization or publishing house has a system of checks and balances set up to ensure quality, integrity and adherence to the law.”

At the college level students are no longer minors.

“It’s pretty clear what the First Amendment says,” said co-sponsor Sen. Pat Colbeck. “The idea that freedom of speech in the universities is being shut down – and I’m seeing it with professors and other folks on campus – and there’s a concept of political correctness that’s going on. … That’s what happens when you don’t take freedom of speech, freedom of the press, seriously.”

New Voices of Michigan, which advocates for the bill, says other groups that have backed it include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Michigan Press Association, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and the Student Press Law Center. The ACLU did not return a request for comment.

The Philadelphia-based civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) expressed support for SB 848 and has endorsed similar bills across the nation, most recently, in Maryland.

“An almost identical bill was passed in Maryland” and took effect Oct. 1, said Joseph Cohn, legislative and policy director for FIRE.

“We’re really gratified to see this bill,” he added.

Chris Robbins, a recent graduate of Canton’s Salem High School and one-time reporter at the student publication The Perspective, testified in favor of the bill during a March hearing.

“Students of all ages, elementary through college deserve our chance to have a voice of our own, and one of the best ways to use that voice is through a student newspaper,” he said in an email.

“This bill would reinforce a positive learning environment for student journalists across our state at a time when it is most needed,” Robbins added.


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