Michigan Senate Committee approves Student Press Rights bill

It’s a first step 28 years in the making. On Tuesday, the state senate’s Judiciary Committee unanimously voted to support SB 848 the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act. The bill, co-sponsored by three Republicans and one Democrat, was introduced on March 8. SB 848 is now before the Committee of the Whole.

Since the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the Hazelwood case, Michigan’s public high school journalists, in particular, and some public college journalists, as well, have been under the yoke of arbitrary and, many times, capricious censorship when they attempted to cover relevant and important stories for their readers.

SB 848 the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act would change that. SB 848 is a significant piece of legislation for Michigan public high school and college students. The Hazelwood decision, as interpreted by too many school administrators, taught a devastating lesson to multiple generations of students. The lesson: Censorship, often arbitrary and with no realistic avenue of appeal other than the federal court, is acceptable in a democracy, and challenging those in authority is useless.

Censored stories have included major health issues potentially affecting students (like smoking, the HPV vaccine, underage drinking, etc.), criminal misdemeanors by student athletes and the occasional teacher or administrator, school millage elections, a fatal traffic accident involving students from the school, the nutritional values of cafeteria menus, health inspection reports on the cafeteria, and even broadcasting on the Monday morning news show the Friday night football results, if the team lost.

None of these stories carried even a remote threat of disrupting the educational environment of the school or of being libelous or obscene. At worst, in the perception of a school administrator, they may have cast the school in an unflattering light.

The all too common experience of censorship teaches these student journalists not to challenge authority, not to cover stories that may offend, and worse of all, it has taught them to self-censor their thoughts and ideas. Nothing is more debilitating and harmful than discouraging civic engagement in our youngest citizens.

SB 848 addresses the concerns that have been raised over the past 28 years. School districts and administrators are protected from liability. Journalism teachers are free to do their jobs without fear of reprisals. And the student journalists themselves are responsible for the work they produce after learning from their teachers important lessons including First Amendment protections, Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws, libel, privacy, source development, accuracy, fairness, ethics, to name just a few of the subjects covered in their journalism course work. Then there are the lessons in grammar, photography, graphics, social media and design. They learn to use 21st Century technology and tools, strengthening their communication and interpersonal skills, time management and team building.

SB 848 provides a common-sense list of obscene and libelous materials that a school can restrict from student media; insulates schools from liability for student speech protected by this measure; reduces the likelihood that schools will be sued for violating students’ First Amendment rights by censoring student journalism; protects teacher/advisers from retaliation or disciplinary action for protecting student free speech and press rights; and importantly clarifies a patchwork of court decisions that have left both students and school officials confused and misinformed about constitutional protections for student journalists.

SB 848 balances the responsibility of public high school administrators to protect their student population from real harm while allowing them to serve their educational mission to educate young people about the importance of the Constitution and the benefits of being civically engaged through journalism.

Kudos to Senator Rick Jones and his Judiciary Committee colleagues, Senators Steven Bieda and Patrick Colbeck, for sponsoring this important piece of legislation and fast tracking it through. The Michigan Coalition for Open Government views SB 848, the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act, as an important and vital legislative effort.

SB 848 is part of a national “New Voices” Campaign to reverse the devastating effects of censorship at public high schools and colleges. The campaign, launched by the Student Press Law Center, seeks to expand student press protections at the state level. Similar legislative efforts are underway in four other states, Minnesota, Missouri, Maryland and Rhode Island.

The New Voices in Michigan campaign was spearheaded by Jeremy Steele, executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association and an MiCOG board member.


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