Senate to student journalists:

North Wind Staff

With the leak of the so-called “Panama Papers” earlier this month, investigative journalists everywhere are smiling on what could be the biggest break for the profession in years. In Michigan, student journalists are smiling too as a new bill designed to extend First Amendment privileges to high school and college journalists inches toward a floor vote.

Senate Bill 848, officially titled the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act, was sponsored by Senator Rick Jones and Tom Casperson (among others). What is significant in the new legislation is how it essentially overturns the 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeir, in which a high school principal repeatedly censored the school newspaper from publishing unflattering articles. The students took the school to court and lost, and a major blow was dealt to the world of student journalism.

In some 28 years since the Kuhlmeir ruling, student press outlets have been censored from writing about issues ranging from underage drinking, the use of HPV vaccines, student and teacher misconduct and even the release of school sports results when a team lost a game. In doing so, it also set a precedent for multiple generations of young journalists that their voice doesn’t matter, that they shouldn’t challenge authority or that they’re somehow unqualified to weigh in on the issues that affect their own age groups.

The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals has already testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition of the new bill. It believes the Hazelwood decision is working fine as is and that allowing student journalists First Amendment privilege somehow gives them license to publish vulgar, derogatory or libelous material that would have otherwise been caught under the auspices of a school principal. An online blog post by Bob Kefgen, MASSP’s assistant director for government relations, seemed to imply the new bill would place students in a fantasy world where no editorial oversight exists, and they would be in for a rude awakening when they enter the workforce.

Kefgen misses the point. Well-trained journalistic advisers are an integral part of every student publication—ready and willing to provide guidance when students need it. Furthermore, in the real world of journalism, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects professional journalists from legal action and prior restraint, so long as what they publish isn’t considered libel or is not based in fact.

So too should it apply to all people working as members of the press, student or otherwise. SB-848 still allows administrators to censor in cases such as libel or the promotion of destructive behavior, which is a real problem, but on the whole, the bill should be considered a major accomplishment if passed.

If you want to go far in the world of journalism, it is important that you feel empowered and willing to take on real issues. It would not have been possible for the “Panama Papers” to be published without journalists having enough courage to stand beside their sources in the face of a major story.

The Student Free Press Act gives young students interested in journalism the freedom to pursue big issues before they even graduate, which makes all the difference in an industry that
emphasizes applicants prove their skills before being hired.

The North Wind implores the Michigan legislature to remember its moral and ethical obligation to uphold the Constitution and vote “yes” on SB-848.