State Laws That Protect Freedom of the Press for Students

New Voices laws give protections against media censorship

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 27, 2024

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In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that it was OK for school administrators to censor what was written in student newspapers and student media, stating that students do not share in a right of free speech and free press accorded professional journalists.

In the Hazelwood case, a school principal pulled from publication articles on abortion and divorce, considering the topics too mature and potentially disturbing for its high school audience. The Supreme Court gave its dispensation to the censorship, reversing course on student free press rights.

Prior to Hazelwood, a legal standard had existed for two decades that student journalists could be censored only where publication substantially disrupted school or encroached on someone’s freedom of speech rights. Since the 1988 ruling, student journalists have come under threat of censorship if an administrator thought there wasn’t a “valid educational purpose” for the work.

Despite the vagueness of that standard, Hazelwood remains the prevailing federal law today. Permitted restrictions have included a Tennessee public high school student being told her piece on atheism would be too “distracting,” as well as an Illinois principal’s quashing of a story revealing hazing in the school’s athletics programs.

State New Voices Laws Expand Student Press Freedoms

In the years since the Hazelwood decision, several states have enacted “anti-Hazelwood” laws (also dubbed “New Voices” laws), which provide expanded protections to student press freedom. With West Virginia joining the ranks in 2023, 17 states have enacted student First Amendment protections that go beyond the requirements of federal law. According to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), states with New Voices laws span the country, from Oregon to Kansas to Maryland.

Judy Endejan, a Seattle-based attorney and former journalist, celebrated the passage of Washington state’s own New Voices law in 2018 as a victory for students and for democratic freedoms. “I think it’s very meaningful,” she says. “It basically says, in public schools, we’re supposed to be teaching kids about our Constitution. The First Amendment is something that they should be allowed to live and breathe, not just study it.”

In public schools, we’re supposed to be teaching kids about our Constitution. The First Amendment is something that they should be allowed to live and breathe, not just study it… Don’t mess with the students!

New Voices Protections: The Example of Washington’s Law

 Key aspects of the Washington New Voices law include:

  • The Washington legislature expressly recognizes freedom of expression through school-sponsored media as a “fundamental principle of our democratic society granted by the First Amendment.”
  • The law applies to both public schools and institutions of higher education.
  • Student expression may only be limited where it’s libelous or slanderous; it’s an invasion of privacy; it violates or incites students to violate the law; it violates school district policies regarding harassment, discrimination, intimidation, or bullying.
  • Student expression is subject to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.
  • Student publications do not speak for the school district, and as such, a school board or administration cannot be held responsible for student journalism.
  • School districts must establish district policies that are in accordance with the new law.
  • Students in higher educational institutions have free speech and free press rights regardless of whether the media is school-sponsored or not or whether it is part of an academic course, and students may not be subject to mandatory review by a school official prior to publication.
  • Media advisers may not be disciplined for complying with the law. “The law protects the media advisers, too,” Endejan says. “In the past, journalism media advisors could get fired for standing up for the kids.”

Do State Student Speech Protections Conflict with Supreme Court Precedent?

Anti-Hazelwood legislation is not in conflict with federal law, which establishes the minimum of free speech protection allowed. While no state may provide fewer protections than are accorded by the Hazelwood decision, states are free to provide more through their own state laws. In Washington, the New Voices law doesn’t contradict the federal standard; rather, it goes beyond it to offer greater protections for student speech.

The law has been heralded as an important step in promoting responsible civic engagement in youth, including student editors, as well as teaching journalistic standards that protect democracy. As Endejan says, “Don’t mess with the students!”

If you need help advocating for your First Amendment rights, talk to a lawyer who specializes in free speech and civil rights issues. For more information on this area of law, see our civil rights overview.

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