Bill seeks more freedom for student press

Jeanette White
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
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.”

Kevin Mullin
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
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.”

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Alan J. Keays

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  • Sounds great, as long as it’s free speech for all sides of a discussion.
    Here’s an example: my daughters school had an assembly and broadcast the Obama inauguration but tomorrow there will be no inaugural broadcast.
    Will schools allow prayer mats as well as Bibles?
    Do some schools continue to ban T-shirts with American flags?
    In the past several years we’ve had the brilliant minds of universities shut down open debate and van speakers that they didn’t agree with.
    I am all for free speech for all opinions, and it’s only through meddling do we have to pass legislation now.

  • Kudos to the Committee for bringing up this difficult discussion. IMHO, schools should be safe places. There should be no toleration of harassment or bullying. But there SHOULD be free speech. One should be able to discuss any issue, public figures are self-chosen so “fair game,” but signaling out one non-public person is not “fair game.” Our society needs to learn again how to have difficult, respectful discussions of issues. Our children will need this skill throughout life. It is ok to agree to disagree.

    I just learned the term “gracious professionalism.” It is a good one. According to Wikipedia- “It’s a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community. With Gracious Professionalism, fierce competition and mutual gain are not separate notions.”

    Please continue your discussion on this topic.

  • Legislators should be running for local school boards if they want to set district level policy. Also a missing piece of the discussion is how the State of Vermont will provide ALL legal and associated costs that will come with this proposed legislation.

    • Jim Christiansen

      Agreed Rama. But when you take the cash, the rules and regulations follow. The political party in charge of those rules and regulations can change too.

  • Fred G Hill

    More explicitly, pupils and students, not to mention adults, should be educated in what constitutes reasoned discourse. An emotional vent reveals the venter’s feelings but doesn’t convince anyone of anything, so what good is is? What might convince readers of what underlies that *feeling* is a clear statement of what the writer *thinks*, in reasonable statements in grammatical language.

  • Patricia Goodrich

    This might be an opportunity for students to learn what the consequences are when they don’t think before they write things on social media. Think of how much this would teach a student editor about what is appropriate and acceptable in any kind of journalism, not just the school newspaper, or a chance for students to understand how harmful “fake news” is. Why it is important to know how to “source” your news to give it validity.

  • Nancy Olson

    Thank you, Alan Keays, for this excellent article. The question of the school’s being liable for the contents of media where students make the editorial decisions is addressed in the “Principal’s Guide to Scholastic Journalism: What Administrators Need to Know about Student Media,” published by the Quill and Scroll Foundation, University of Iowa, pp. 32-33. In the case of Yeo v. Town of Lexington (Massachusetts): “…a federal appeals court determined student editors, not school officials, had made the decision to reject the ads… ‘School officials have an interest in [students’] autonomy to make education decisions,’ the court stated.’”
    “The Yeo ruling supports an argument made by First Amendment advocates: Schools are most protected from legal liability when they leave content decisions to students.”
    Of course, students should know and abide by a code of ethics, such as that promoted by the Society of Professional Journalists.

  • Jay Nichols

    Legislators need to be very careful. Please don’t tie the hands of school principals to make sure they can run a safe, respectful, civil school culture. We all have limits to our freedom of speech. For example, we can’t yell “fire” in a movie theater when there is no fire. These are issues better left to local administrators and local school boards to decide.

    • I for one don’t trust the local administrators and local school boards. Look at recent headlines of whats being banned in public schools. Since when is an American Flag offensive to Americans?

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Free speech and a free press are laudable assets in a free society but we do place limits on the freedoms of those under the age of majority when it comes to potentially dangerous activities such as alcohol, tobacco and firearms purchasing and use. Since the pen is supposedly mightier than the sword, using public resources to provide that pen to those under the age of 18 should have special considerations in place. A published story that is libelous or slanderous can put the taxpayers of the school district at great risk since they end up being the deep pocket in a lawsuit. Currently, students ARE restricted from wearing tee shirts or hats which cross certain lines and “cause disruption” and the main criteria are the general tenets of political correctness. It seems that the biggest source of current restrictions on free speech in our public school system are ideologically-based and highly subjective. That would not change under this proposal.

  • Pete Novick

    Meanwhile, 48 years ago…

    “A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

    – Justice Abe Fortas delivering the Opinion of the Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, (1969)

    Why does Vermont need to revisit this?