Bill protecting student journalists would stop censorship

Too often we take for granted the important work happening every day in high school journalism classrooms ― where the next generation of civic, business and media leaders are developing their voices ― to bring attention to the need for public access and transparent government.

Michigan legislators have an important opportunity to encourage the new voices of tomorrow.

Senate Bill 848, the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act, would help protect student journalists at public schools and universities as they report on the issues that are important to their peers. It would stop unwarranted censorship by public school officials and establish clear rules that students and administrators easily can understand.

The bill was introduced last month by Sens. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge; Steven Bieda, D-Warren; Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba; and Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton. It was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 24 and now is before the Committee of the Whole.

The Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) supports this important and vital legislative effort.

I spent 25 years of my career as a college newspaper adviser and more than four decades speaking to high school journalists about censorship, freedom of information and the responsibility they have as citizens. I have observed firsthand the terrible impact censorship has on students and, ultimately, our society.

Our Constitution relies on an informed public to keep the government in check. Nothing is more debilitating and harmful to that cause than discouraging civic engagement in our youngest citizens. Censorship teaches student journalists not to challenge authority, not to cover stories that may offend and worse of all, to self-censor their thoughts and ideas.

Censored stories by high school administrators have included major health issues potentially affecting students (such as smoking, the HPV vaccine and underage drinking), 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 bill also codifies protection for student journalists at Michigan's 13 public universities already ensured by a 2001 U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Hazelwood does not apply at the college level.

High school and college journalism is a vital and important training ground for future news media staffers and for the many thousands of student journalists who ultimately choose other career paths. Journalism courses teach writing and organization skills, how to ask questions, how to do thorough research and how to evaluate the credibility of the information they’re bombarded with via social media.

Journalism students use 21st-Century technology and tools, strengthen their communication and interpersonal skills, and get hands-on training in grammar, spelling, photography, graphics, social media and design.

The learning laboratory of a journalism classroom also teaches about time management, team building and civic engagement. Students learn from their certified journalism teachers how to access public documents and attend public meetings, as well as other skills such as source development, accuracy, fairness and ethics, to name just a few. They also learn about the U.S. Constitution, including the importance of the First Amendment to the freedom for all of our citizens and the checks and balances that preserve and protect our Republic.

SB 848 balances the responsibility of public high school administrators to protect their student population from real harm or actual disruption during the school day 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.

This bill provides a common-sense list of obscene and libelous materials that a school can still restrict from student media. Scenarios for permissible censorship could include libel such as publishing a knowingly false article about a coach or teacher's romantic or sexual relationship with a student. This could also be a false light privacy issue. Also outing a gay or transgender student could constitute an Invasion of Privacy claim. Stories that could legitimately disrupt the school day or that would violate federal or state law also could be restricted.

The bill also 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 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. We urge the legislature to pass the bill this spring to better protect student journalists.

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Comments

Jim Forrest
Tue, 04/19/2016 - 11:17am
I understand the reasoning behind this bill and support the intent. However, I have always understood that the basic right of a free press is for the publisher, not the individual journalist. If students have the upper hand over the publisher (the school), isn't this going to be a shock if they actually become professionals and are subjected to the often heavy hand of editors, and publishers?
Rod Satterthwaite
Tue, 04/19/2016 - 12:08pm
This is a great question, Jim. The problem comes in equating a public school official, who is a government employee, with a publisher who is not. Allowing government officials to determine content flies in the face of the watchdog component of effective journalism and teaches students that they must not question authority. Rather than give students the upper hand, Senate Bill 848 provides reasonable limits on student speech such as preventing publication of content that is libelous, constitutes an invasion of privacy or would cause a material and substantial disruption to the orderly operation of the school.
Tue, 04/19/2016 - 11:35pm
Also, if the publisher of a professional newspaper is personally involved in a story, all accepted journalism codes of ethics require that the publisher remove himself from reviewing that story. A principal who changes or cancels a story about her own administration is violating basic ethical standards — and is teaching students that ethics don’t matter. Some school administrators allege they need censorship authority to “teach journalism,” but school officials in practice rarely give educationally valid reasons for vetoing stories. Typically, students are told nothing more than, “You are making the school look bad,” which has nothing to do with the teaching of sound journalism or protecting community standards.
duane
Wed, 04/20/2016 - 1:08am
Ms. Briggs-Bunting invoking the 1st Amendment seems to ignore that there are restrictions on free speech, you can’t yell ‘FIRE’ in a crowded theater, you can’t libel or defame some without proof, you are expected be accountable for what you say. She seems to want students [children] to be allowed/encouraged to say and do whatever they want in the name of journalism without any accountability. She seems to omit teaching ethics, the potential devastating impact of errors in reporting, or about establishing responsibilities of the 'journalist' while protecting them from 'censorship'. Consideration of unintended consequences does not appear important in her view of reporting, which we see that lack of training playing our in the news media. We hear how children [under 18] need to be protected from themselves because their brains are still developing and their judgment is not always sound. Yet, Ms. Briggs-Bunting believes such under develop judgement should be protect from the consequences is may cause to others. We have heard about how children [under 18] should be taught not to post information or pictures of themselves because once on the internet it can never be removed. I wonder why this article shows no concern for 'reporting',and its potential everlasting such impact on others . Ms. Briggs-Bunting and the legislators seem to lack any concern for the unintended consequences of this type of legislation. What ‘journalism’ student were reporting and the means of their reporting has drastically changed in less than a generation, ignoring the new ease of distributing, the breathe of distribution, and the inability to withdrawn wrongful ‘reporting’ shows a lack of concern for the harm that could /has been done by such carte blanche protection. If a ‘school’ is responsible for the actions of their teachers and students on school activities, why shouldn't the school be just as responsible for the actions of ‘journalism’ student performing school activities?
David Zeman
Thu, 04/21/2016 - 11:29am
Duane, You need to read to the bottom of the article. The author acknowledges many instances where there is a legitimate need to prevent injurious or inaccurate reporting. She is not claiming for students an absolute right to print anything. The gist of the concern, as she expresses it, is to prevent the kind of knee-jerk, defensive, CYA censorship that some principals/administrators engage in to prevent the publication of truly newsworthy stories.
duane
Thu, 04/21/2016 - 8:26pm
Mr. Zeman, I am not clear on your point. "Scenarios for permissible censorship could include libel such as publishing a knowingly false article about a coach or teacher’s romantic or sexual relationship with a student." I would draw your attention to the 'could include'. Ms. Briggs-Bunting isn’t saying what the proposed legislation she supports does 'include,' she is not advocating that it must or even should ‘include’ for her continuing support. Her acknowledgement of potential victims, by all appearances, does not seem to be of significant enough concern to warrant her to commit to addressing that concern. Is your rebuke because you feel I am paying too much attention to the ‘’letter’ of what is written and not focusing on the ‘spirit’ of the article? I will accept that rebuke [I probably am a too literal person] because I was reading the ‘letter’ of the article and not reading the ‘spirit’ of the article. I became sensitive to the description in the article of how a few based on their activities should be given special protection while severely reducing if not eliminating the redress potential victims mentioned in this article currently have. If I were to shift to the ‘spirit’ that could open up all types of concerns, such as what could be the unspoken intentions. Should we consider unspoken consequences? If the ‘student journalists’ and their supporting institution were exempt from consequences would targets of their ‘reporting’ have to simply absorb whatever was reported? Could an organization or individual have an opportunity to influence a young ‘mind’ into ‘reporting’ things that an adult news organization would be prevented by risk of legal action? I notice you take no issue with Ms. Briggs-Bunting omitting any talk of ethics training for the ‘students’. It would seem that if being in school is the best time for “…media leaders are developing their voices ― to bring attention to the need for public access and transparent government.” that this would also be the best time for those same people to be developing ethics and learning about accountability. You believe that journalism ethics and accountability is an issue of this legislation? You believe that ethics and accountability training should be part of a ‘journalism students’ education while in school.