Student newspapers may gain free speech protections

Bill prohibiting interference by school officials awaits Gov. Jay Inslee's signature

— A bill expanding free speech for high school and college newspapers passed both chambers by wide margins in the last hours before the legislative cutoff March 2.

The bill now sits on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk where it awaits a signature.

Senate Bill 5064, sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, allows student newspapers to determine their own content without prior review by school officials.

Fain introduced the bill following in the footsteps of former legislator and now King County Councilman Dave Upthegrove, who introduced it in 2005.

The bill would turn back the clock on a U.S. Supreme court decision in 1988, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

In that case, the court ruled high school educators can have editorial control over a school-sponsored newspaper when they have a legitimate educational concern such as poorly written articles, biased, or obscene.

The standard the new bill sets is based on the less-strict Tinker standard from Tinker v. Des Moines in Iowa in 1969, almost 20 years before the Hazelwood ruling.

In Tinker, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for a school to suppress free speech, the speech must “materially and substantially interfere” with students’ education or the school’s operation.

“Practicing journalism in its full capacity better prepares students to pursue a career in journalism and equips them with the critical thinking, research and writing skills that lead to more engaged citizens,” Fain said in a prepared statement.

The bill also prohibits school administrators from disciplining student advisers for protecting students’ free speech rights.

The last part of the bill protects school officials from civil liability if a story is deemed libelous. Advisers are still allowed to help students make difficult decisions, but the final say lies with student editors.

“It is important that they (student journalists) understand the power of the press, the power of free speech and not just what that gives them, but also the obligations it brings,” Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said during floor debate in the House.


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