It was welcomed news last year when state lawmakers passed legislation that restored the free speech rights of student journalists at high schools and colleges and provided protections for the students and the faculty who advise them.
The law, SB 5064, allows Washington state students to join their peers in more than a dozen other states that have addressed a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that school administrators were not violating students’ free speech rights when publications were censored or students or advisers where punished for the content of school publications or pre-publication review was required.
Among those who fought for those rights and protections more than a dozen years ago was a Cascade High School teacher and student newspaper adviser, Kay Powers, who helped her students run an underground newspaper when Everett School District policy required that student publications receive the district’s review and approval prior to publication, review with the potential to result in censorship of stories and content that the district might deem embarrassing or inappropriate.
Powers died earlier this month, having retired earlier after a 40-year career as an educator at high schools and colleges in Idaho and Washington state.
It was Powers’ experience that demonstrates why the state law is necessary.
Having taken a teaching job at Cascade High School, Powers was the faculty adviser for the student newspaper. In 2005, student journalists at Everett High School objected to the district’s requirement for prior approval of their publication, the Kodak, a protest that soon spread to Cascade.
When Cascade students objected to the review of the student paper, they — with Powers continuing her supervision — started an underground paper. Powers was later fired after school officials discovered she and students had used school equipment and facilities for the underground publication — The Free Stehekin — against policy they had agreed to. But that discovery was made only after it was learned the school district had installed a camera in the ceiling of Powers’ classroom, surveillance the district first denied but later admitted.
Over the course of more than a year and challenges by the teachers union and nearly $200,000 of district taxpayer money spent on attorneys’ fees, Powers was fired, then later rehired; the superintendent, Carol Whitehead, retired early after receiving a death threat; and a student journalist was suspended for 10 days and told by Whitehead that he could not finish his senior year at Cascade, a decision that was later reversed by the school board.
What was at stake, Powers told The Herald in 2008, was her students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of expression: “All the way along, I was standing up for what the students had been standing up for: freedom of speech,” she said.
And those rights aren’t something that are granted at a certain age or by possession of a high school diploma; they are necessary to young citizens who are learning about the power of such rights and the responsibilities inherent in them to accuracy and fairness.
A year before the state law passed, we urged for its passage noting the value of experience in learning certain skills. Guided by trained teachers and adults, we trust students with Bunsen burners in chemistry class and behind the wheel of a car while learning to drive.
Student journalists can best learn the importance and absolute necessity of accuracy and fairness when they are made aware of the consequences for others, themselves and the public’s trust if those standards are not respected and carefully followed and are then asked to put those standards into practice.
Kay Powers understood that. Thanks in part to her, we now have state law that does the same.