Give students freedom to learn free speech

Regardless of what one thinks of the future of newspapers and other print media, journalism in some form will — must — continue as a vital part of our society and democracy.

And that requires journalists who are trained as much in journalism’s responsibilities as in its rights. For many that education starts early in public middle schools and high schools, then continues at colleges or universities. Legislation now in the state Senate would clarify the rights of students to free expression and stress to them their responsibilities.

Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1988, the standard has been that while students don’t “check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door,” administrators for secondary schools and school districts were not violating those rights when they censored or punished students for the content of school publications or required a pre-publication review of student newspapers and other media, as outlined by Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center.

The high court’s 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, said it was not deciding whether to apply the same standard to publications at public colleges and universities, and federal appeals courts generally did not hold college publications to the Hazelwood standard. That changed when the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals found in 2005 in Hosty v. Carter, that Hazelwood did apply to college publications, although most public colleges and universities in Washington state and elsewhere have policies that assure greater editorial freedom to student journalists.

Modeled on legislation in North Dakota, one of nine states with student freedom-of-expression laws, Senate Bill 6233 would revise that standard at all education levels, making student editors responsible for determining the content of news, opinion, features and advertising, just as they are at the professional level. The bill also shifts liability away from the school district and on to the students, those responsible for the speech. The legislation doesn’t authorize speech that is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an invasion of privacy or incites violence or other dangerous acts. The expectation is that an adviser will guide students as to their responsibilities to avoid publication of unprotected speech.

The same standards would apply to student publications at colleges and universities.

School officials may be nervous about placing trust in a journalism adviser and student journalists when issues or libel and privacy are involved, but the potential for harm exists elsewhere in a public school. High school football coaches are trusted to train their athletes in the proper methods of tackling that minimize the risks for injuries that can have lifelong impacts. Certainly, high school newspaper advisers can be shown the same level of trust in coaching their students.

The practice of prior review, especially when it results in censored speech, does nothing to train responsible journalists for the professional world, allowing them to leave those considerations and decisions to someone else. With administrators making the call, students can’t adequately learn the standards of journalism to check and double-check facts and know the boundaries of the First Amendment.

As smartphones and social networks have increased the ability for everyone to broadcast their thoughts, more and more of us are entering the realm of public opinion and journalism. Even those students who are not considering a career in journalism can benefit from some training and practice in their First Amendment rights and responsibilities.

Censorship and prior review in the classroom only limits what can be learned.

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