A proposal to expand press freedoms for student journalists at schools across Vermont had lawmakers grappling over how to meet standards without censoring content.
The bill, S.18, seeks to do away with the ability of school officials to block the publication of student-generated media content unless it is considered libelous or slanderous, violates state or federal law, invades privacy, or “materially and substantially” incites school disruption.
Members of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday asked backers of the bill whether the proposal swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, providing too much freedom to students and too few exemptions to allow administrators to act.
“Right now a student could wear a T-shirt with language on it that would be protected, but would not be protected in the student newspaper,” said Chris Evans, adviser to the student-run newspaper as well as radio and television stations at the University of Vermont. “What we want is for that student newspaper to have the same protection as that T-shirt.”
Evans, UVM’s assistant director for student media, told committee members the bill is modeled after one approved in Arizona. Seven other states have passed versions of the legislation.
In addition, he said, efforts are underway in 20 more states to pass similar legislation. The initiative is part of a nationwide campaign, New Voices, led by the Student Press Law Center and aimed at protecting student press freedom rights in schools across the country.
Evans described New Voices Vermont as “a student-powered grass-roots movement to give young people the legally protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues.”
The legislation would apply to public and private schools, as well as colleges and universities in the state.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee she tried twice before to pass similar legislation “years ago,” but it has never made it out of committee. She said what’s different this time is there appears to be a more organized effort in support.
“If we’re going to actually teach civil discourse in our schools,” White added, “we need to be allowing students to express themselves.”
The current standard allowing school officials to censor student media, Evans said, stems from a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. That decision said school officials could censor a school-sponsored newspaper’s content if it is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”
Those reasons, critics say, are overly broad and subjective, giving school officials great leeway in deciding what is allowed to be published.
The decision also stated, “A school must be able to set high standards for the student speech that is disseminated under its auspices — standards that may be higher than those demanded by some newspaper publishers or theatrical producers in the ‘real’ world — and may refuse to disseminate student speech that does not meet those standards.”
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, a committee member, told Evans and White he wanted to support the proposed legislation but had concerns that school officials may be left powerless to take action when it might be appropriate.
“We know students, and journalist students in particular, are going to want to press the envelope — that’s what we hope they do,” he said. “How far does that envelope get stretched if the school is left completely void of any kind of ability to say, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t go there,’ other than what’s currently in the bill?”
Benning presented a hypothetical example: What if a student writes an article that contains a reference to President Barack Obama and prefaces his last name with “the f-word” followed by the “n-word”?
Nothing in the proposed legislation appeared to allow school officials to prevent it, he said.
“It’s not explicitly stated, you are right about that,” Evans replied. “I would say, however, that community standards definitely come to bear on what students choose to put into a newspaper.”
Benning then pointed out the difficulty in determining community standards, saying that two newspapers in Chittenden County — the weekly Seven Days and the daily Burlington Free Press — have differences over what language they permit on their pages.
“It seems to me that if you’re enacting legislation,” he said, “you have to be giving schools some pretty good ability to stay as close to the Burlington Free Press and not allow the envelope to be pushed beyond the scope of Seven Days.”
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, a committee member, raised another concern, saying a great deal of attention has been focused on students dealing with harassment or bullying in schools, and the consequences that can have. He asked if there were any provisions in the bill to protect students from unwanted attention, or from being cast in a negative light.
Evans said there are anti-harassment and anti-bullying school rules and laws that could apply. “The level of protection legally for a private person, what you’re talking about, is much higher than for a public person or public official,” he added.
Committee members discussed referencing those anti-harassment and anti-bullying provisions in the legislation. Members also suggested adding an exemption to prohibit obscenity.
“I introduced this so that you could start the conversation,” White told her fellow senators. Hopefully, she said, the committee “could come up with something that is meaningful, that protects and helps students express themselves, that doesn’t shut them down.”
Kelsey Neubauer, student editor in chief of The Vermont Cynic, the student-run newspaper at UVM, addressed some of the concerns, including the one raised by Benning.
“One of our code of ethics is minimize harm. … Maybe what we need is not censorship but education,” she told the committee. “I don’t know any journalist who is intending to minimize harm who would write that about a public figure. I really, truly think that the ethics of journalism prevent exactly what you’re saying.”
Alexandre Silberman and Jake Bucci, student editors of the Register, the Burlington High School newspaper, also testified.
They told the committee about a controversy stirred by an article about a student Trump supporter and harassment. As a result of the story, Silberman said, the administration is reviewing articles before publication.
Neubauer said the university’s hands-off policy toward the publication has allowed the staff to pursue stories that might not have come to light if prior review were required.
She pointed to an investigative article about the university’s dining service contractor and its labor practices that led to change. The article earned a second place award for the 2015 Story of the Year from the Associated Collegiate Press.
“These stories are so important, and our ability to tell them without fear or favor is very important,” Neubauer said. “I cannot imagine what a place UVM would be if we did not have the support of the First Amendment and free speech.”
Committee Chair Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, told those who testified not to read too much into the pointed questions his fellow committee members raised.
“It does not indicate support or lack of support,” he said. “We try to figure out all the possible ways the law could screw up and correct those if we decide to pursue it.”