House committee approves bill targeting student press rights

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

High school and college-level journalists across Arizona could soon see further protections from censorship by administrators for work under their school-sponsored media.

The House Education Committee approved a proposal by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, on Monday that she says promotes freedom of speech and the press for students who contribute to their school's publications. The Senate unanimously approved the measure last month.

The Senate majority leader's fight for broader protections for student journalists dates all the way back to her senior year at Greenway High School in 1992. It was then that she testified before an Arizona Senate committee in support of a similar measure that also would have increased press freedom protections for student journalists at all academic levels.

Yee, who was a student journalist and cartoonist herself, recalled seeing administrators repeatedly censor the school's paper. The 1992 bill never passed, and other attempts in previous years failed as well.

"It's taken 25 years, but student free press has been around for longer than that," Yee said. "To see 30-0 unanimous Senate support, bipartisan-it really was moving."

Senate Bill 1384 directs each school district, charter school, community college and university to create a written policy containing standards or guidelines for its school-sponsored media. But the bill limits the guidelines' restrictions to content that is libelous, invades personal privacy, violates federal or state law, or "materially and substantially disrupts the orderly operation" of their school.

The measure would also prohibit discipline against students or student media advisers who exercise their speech or press freedoms.

Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, said he thinks the legislation should not include the protection of student media advisers or high schools at all.

"I think it's pretty common knowledge that in many of our schools there's a strong liberal bias," Stringer said. "And I can foresee the unintended consequence of protecting faculty members who are influencing the students or perhaps expressing their own views and biases using public resources to propagandize their own liberal views through what purport to be student publications."

Henry Gorton, a student journalist at Sunnyslope High School in Glendale, said the legislation would protect students' ability to fully participate as reporters.

"It is our responsibility as student journalists to pursue the truth and to take a close and investigative look at challenging issues," Gorton said. "Unfortunately, challenging issues may be unpalatable to our administrators, and they may seek to avoid them and to limit our ability to bring important issues and discussions to the student body - and that limits our influence and our meaning as a newspaper."

The legislation awaits full consideration in the House.

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