Student newspapers gain new free speech protections

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 on March 2. The bill now heads to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk where it awaits a signature.

SB 5064, sponsored by Senator Joe Fain, R-Auburn, allows student newspapers to determine their own content without mandatory prior review.

Fain introduced the bill following in the footsteps of former legislator and now King County Councilmember 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 that 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 in order 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 an article were deemed libelous. Advisers are still allowed to help students make difficult decisions, but the final say lies with the student editor.

“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,” Representative Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said during floor debate in the House.

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