By JASMINE WATTS
Capital News Service
LANSING— Students would have full editorial control over student newspapers and other school-sponsored media under a bill before the Senate.
Sens. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, and Steve Bieda, D-Warren, sponsored the bill that the Senate’s Judiciary Committee recently approved unanimously.
If signed into law, the bill also would protect student media advisors from being fired for encouraging student journalists to write articles that school administrators dislike.
“Victory for freedom of speech,” Jones said after the committee vote.
The legislation would reverse the effects of a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing administrators to censor school newspapers as long as they had a “reasonable educational justification.”
The bill would set a clear standard of what is acceptable, Jeremy Steele, executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, told lawmakers. High school and college administrators could prevent articles from being published only if the content is libelous, invades privacy, violates federal or state law, or incites disruption in the school.
“The bill takes a very balanced approach in making sure that school officials still have the authority that they need to protect students’ safety and prevent harm from happening to students while also allowing students to learn about the First Amendment in journalism in the hands-on environment of a classroom,” Steele said.
Steele testified before the committee, giving examples of censorship i that he said violated students’ First Amendment rights.
In Marquette, a college newspaper adviser was removed after she encouraged her students to investigate important issues on campus including the university’s secret contract with Starbucks, he said.
An advertisement for a pregnancy-counseling center was forbidden from appearing in the school newspaper by a principal in Rochester, he said. And in Ann Arbor, an article about mental health that was rejected by a school administrator from appearing in the student newspaper was later published by the New York Times and broadcast on National Public Radio.
This is no longer a time when young people can be shielded from information by tearing articles out of a newspaper, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told the committee.
“There are zero teenagers that learn about the existence of drugs or alcohol for the first time by reading it an editorial,” LoMonte said. “We know that our young people are being saturated with junk information.”
The Student Press Law Center, based in Arlington, Virginia, is a nonprofit organization that aims to protect freedom of the press for student journalists.
It is healthier for those issues to be heard in the “accountable pages of a newspaper rather than the anything-goes realm of Twitter, Yik Yak and Snapchat,” LoMonte said.
Chris Robbins, a reporter for the Perspective at Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, told lawmakers that the legislation is important because the entire school district benefits from articles in school newspapers, not just the students.
Robbins once filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out how his district decided what websites to block on the district’s computer network. He was told it would cost $8,800 to get that information.
The experience gave him confidence and knowledge of how the government operates, how to get public information and government responsibilities, he said.
“By taking journalism and being a part of my student newspaper, I’ve learned to be a part of my community and make a difference in my area,” Robbins said.
Katie Rietkerk, a student reporter for The Torch at Plainwell High School, said that journalism has taught her that people deserve to know what’s going on and why it happens.
“Journalism is very important in a school setting,” Rietkerk said. “It gives the students a taste of the real world. It teaches us important lessons, such as honesty is key or to be observant. And it gives us an outlet to say what is on our minds and not be suppressed by the adults around us.”
Some school administrators oppose the bill.
Bob Kefgen, assistant director for government relations for the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, argued that principals have the same rights as newspaper owners, editors and publishers.
“If students want to write without oversight of editors and publishers they have the same freedom they’ve always had — start their own publication and seek independent funding for it,” Kefgen said. “In fact, technology affords them more opportunity to do this than ever before. They can start their own blog, create their own website, or publish an e-book at little to no cost.”
Other opponents include the Michigan Association of School Administrator and, the Michigan Association of State Universities.
“Universities, next to the media, are the greatest facilitators of freedom of speech,” said Daniel Hurley, the chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities.
The bill is unnecessary at the university level, he said. His opposition represented a cautious need for more time to vet the bill and understand the language.
Similar laws have recently been passed in Iowa, Massachusetts, Kansas, Arkansas, Colorado, California, Oregon and North Dakota.
More information about the legislation is at Newvoicesmi.com, a website created by the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association and the Student Press Law Center.
The bill now heads to the Senate.
By JASMINE WATTS