MADISON, Wis. (AP) — When Fond du Lac High School student reporters published an article on sexual assault two years ago, they expected to ignite a conversation about rape, not free speech. But when worried administrators responded with a policy enabling censorship, the magazine joined a decades-long debate over free speech in school-sponsored media.
Though school officials ultimately backed down, the magazine’s adviser, Matthew Smith, is now leading a push for legislation to protect student speech statewide.
“I think that kind of opened my eyes to how harmful things can be if the rules aren’t clear and students aren’t specifically protected,” said Smith, who is now a coordinator for New Voices Wisconsin.
The national New Voices campaign is pushing legislation in about 20 states to enhance free-speech protections for high school and college media. It’s in its early stages in Wisconsin but has been gaining traction nationally following legislation passed in North Dakota last year. Four states have since introduced similar bills, and activists hope at least three others will soon join.
“It’s amazing how North Dakota re-energized this movement across the country,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of Student Press Law Center in Washington. “I think people had been really discouraged for a long time.”
A 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave public school officials power to censor student newspapers. The court held that a high school principal in Hazelwood, Missouri, didn’t violate students’ rights when he barred publication of two articles on teen pregnancy and divorce. Administrators in the Fond du Lac case and other cases have argued that similar prior review is reasonable when the school is financing the publication. Fond du Lac Superintendent James Sebert did not respond to two voicemails Friday.
The Supreme Court ruling was limited, however, and leaves open the possibility for states to expressly protect students’ free press rights. So far, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, Massachusetts and Oregon have passed laws enhancing student journalist protections. The Illinois law doesn’t include protections for high school journalists.
The North Dakota measure, which took effect in August, guarantees student journalists the right to exercise free speech in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether it’s for a class or the school supports it financially. Under the bill, school administrators can only exercise prior restraint if it is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates federal or state law or incites students to commit a crime, violate school policy or disrupt school operations.
In Wisconsin, the New Voices group is pushing for similar legislation, but activists have yet to find Republican legislators who are interested in signing on.
“We don’t want just Democratic sponsorship — it’s not going to go anywhere,” said New Voices Wisconsin coordinator Linda Barrington. “So trying to find somebody on the Republican side to do this is what our biggest challenge is.”
The North Dakota measure passed unanimously in a Republican-controlled Legislature, and Republicans or conservatives have introduced bills in New Jersey, Missouri, Washington and Nebraska. LoMonte said sponsors have also expressed interest in Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan.
“The fact that Republicans have taken up this cause nationally tells me that press freedom is not a partisan or ideological issue,” LoMonte said. “In fact, I think you could make a strong case that giving students the ability to be heard on issues of public concern is about small government.”
Smith said he thinks the effort could take a while in Wisconsin, but he’s optimistic they’ll eventually achieve a policy affording student media protections.
“When you build relationships and when you put the focus on teaching and on making the rules clear for everyone, everyone wins,” he said.
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