Free speech protections for student journalists approved by House

First amendment protections for student journalists at school newspapers cleared a major hurdle after legislation sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain was today approved by the Washington State House of Representatives. The plan passed by a 93-6 margin in the final hour ahead of a key legislative deadline. It is supported by current and former student reporters and editors, journalism teachers and free press advocates.

“Students deserve the opportunity to pursue stories that are important to them and their peers without fear of censorship,” said Fain, who sponsored the bill after visiting with journalism students at Auburn High School in 2016. “Not only does this better prepare them to pursue a career in journalism, but also equips them with critical thinking, research and writing skills that will help them remain engaged citizens participating in democracy.”

Under the legislation, student editors would be responsible for content, which Fain called appropriate as they learn how to participate ethically and honestly in the conversations of a civil democracy.

The issue stems from a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier where the court held that school-sponsored student expression, including school newspapers, did not occur in a traditional public forum and therefore could be regulated. Despite the federal precedent, states have the right to provide greater protections.

Fain’s legislation cleared the Senate last year and was approved again in January. It is modeled off of policies passed by North Dakota in 2015, placing the responsibility on student editors to determine content so long as the content is not libelous, illegal, or would disrupt the educational environment of the school.

The legislation now heads to back to the Senate as it was amended in the House, where it has passed twice before, including by a 43-5 margin in January.