This week, the Arizona House of Representatives will likely vote on a bill, SB1384, sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Yee, that has made its way into lawmaking bodies across the country. The bill is part of the national New Voices campaign to grant sweeping free-speech protections to high school and college media.
Yee’s bill will grant protection that those in the private sector do not have, according to some experts.
The New Voices campaign is a product of the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. That organization became best-known this year for it plans to hold a“Ball of Rights” event the evening before President Trump’s inauguration dedicated to “protecting the Constitution against whatever the next four years may bring.”
Its role in forwarding bills like SB1384 is not well-known around the Arizona Capitol. As a result, it has met with little opposition has it winds its way through the Arizona Legislature.
A similar bill passed in North Dakota in 2015.
According to an article in the OCRegister.com, the bill “has been gaining traction nationally following legislation passed in North Dakota last year….. 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.”
There is a good reason for that says Arizona lawmaker David Stringer; the lone “no” vote in the House Education Committee’s hearing on the bill. “This law gives statutory protections to journalism students and teachers that no journalist has in the private sector,” Stringer told the ADI. “That is an arresting idea isn’t it? It makes no distinction between high school and college students. It makes no distinctions between minors and college students.”
Stringer noted that the bill is designed to circumvent the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. From USCourts.gov:
Students enrolled in the Journalism II class at Hazelwood East High School were responsible for writing and editing the school’s paper The Spectrum. Two of the articles submitted for publication in the final edition of the paper contained stories on divorce and teenage pregnancy. The divorce article featured a story about a girl who blamed her father’s actions for her parents’ divorce. The teenage pregnancy article featured stories in which pregnant students at Hazelwood East shared their experiences.
To ensure their privacy, the girls’ names were changed in the article. The school principal felt that the subjects of these two articles were inappropriate. He concluded that journalistic fairness required that the father in the divorce article be informed of the story and be given an opportunity to comment. He also stated his concerns that simply changing the names of the girls in the teenage pregnancy article may not be sufficient to protect their anonymity and that this topic may not be suitable for the younger students. As a result, he prohibited these articles from being published in the paper.
Because there was no time to edit the paper if it were to go to press before the end of the school year, entire pages were eliminated. The student journalists then brought suit to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, alleging that their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech had been violated.
The U.S. District Court concluded that they were not. The students appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which reversed the ruling, stating that the students’ rights had been violated. The school appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.
The Majority Opinion was written by Justice White, who was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O’Connor and Scalia.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the principal’s actions did not violate the students’ free speech rights. The Court noted that the paper was sponsored by the school and, as such, the school had a legitimate interest in preventing the publication of articles that it deemed inappropriate and that might appear to have the imprimatur of the school. Specifically, the Court noted that the paper was not intended as a public forum in which everyone could share views; rather, it was a limited forum for journalism students to write articles pursuant to the requirements of their Journalism II class, and subject to appropriate editing by the school.
During the Education Committee hearing, conservative students told of censorship at the hands of progressive educators. While their testimony was compelling, Yee’s bill does nothing to address the situation at the core of their complaints. In fact, it could make the situation worse.
Conservative students described being censored by progressive teachers merely on the basis of their ideology. Teachers, who judge students’ actions or statements, whether it be in a Journalism class, English class, or PE class based on their own ideology are violating the very basic tenets of their profession. Teachers, who do not recognize their responsibility to keep their politics out of classroom decision making, will not likely recognize our laws either when they do not suit their agenda.
Those teachers do not belong in our classrooms.
The students, who came before the Education Committee need to take their complaints to the State Board of Education and the Arizona Board of Regents. Their complaints can only be cured by good governance of our classrooms and what is taught to our students in our colleges of education.
Yee’s bill actually weakens the rights of those bodies to ensure that they are able to protect students from predatory teachers.
Stringer questions why Yee’s bill protects both students and teachers. “It seems redundant, doesn’t it? This is not really about protecting kids; this is about protecting teachers. Let’s remember that when we are dealing with a high school paper, this is a tax supported publication. This bill is telling our school boards and the State that they have no right to regulate activity in the classroom. If it should pass, who is going to protect our children from rogue teachers?”
In July 2015, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Stringer. The Ninth Circuit justice upheld a ruling by a lower court ruling in favor of the State of Arizona, which found that Arizona had a right to regulate the curriculum taught in its publicly funded classrooms. The law, commonly referred to as HB2281, passed in 2010 and was sponsored by lawmaker Rep. Steve Montenegro.
The Ninth Circuit Court upheld the decision of District Court Judge Wallace Tashima, a President Jimmy Carter appointee. Judge Tashima found that the teachers in that case lacked standing and removed them as plaintiffs in the case because teachers failed to demonstrate that they have a protected First Amendment right to speak within the classroom.
While that case dealt with curricula, the ACLU advises teachers of grades K-12 that they “have significant rights to freedom of expression but also face important limitations.”
The limitations to which the ACLU refers are important for no other reason than to ensure that the unequal power teachers have over students is not abused.