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Freedom of the Press for Students in Washington

New Voices laws give protections against media censorship

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 that case, a school principal pulled articles from publication 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, the 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.

New Voices Laws

In the years since, several states have enacted “anti-Hazelwood” laws (also dubbed “New Voices” laws), which provide expanded protections to student press freedom. As of March 2018, Washington joined the ranks of 14 states to elevate student First Amendment protections above that required by federal law.

Judy Endejan is a Seattle media, communications and entertainment attorney with Garvey Schubert Barer, as well as a former journalist. She celebrates the passage of Washington’s New Voices law 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.”

Key aspects of the Washington 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.”
  • It applies to both public schools and institutions of higher education.
  • Student expression may only be limited where:
    • libelous or slanderous
    • an invasion of privacy
    • violates the law or incites students to violate the law
    • 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.”

Can State Law Override Federal Precedent?

Anti-Hazelwood legislation is not in conflict with federal law, which establishes the minimum of free speech protection allowed: no state may provide less than that accorded by the Hazelwood decision. However, states are free to provide more protection than the federal standard of the First Amendment, through their own state laws. In Washington, the New Voices law doesn’t contradict the federal standard, but rather goes beyond it to offer greater protections to 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!”

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

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

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