Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Student press-freedom bill needs a good editor
A bill in Olympia, HB 1307, would give student editors at public high schools control of school papers and other media. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, said it would extend freedom of the press to students.
In America, freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one. Consider this column. I drafted it, but it is printed subject to the discretion of The Seattle Times Company and is an exercise in the company's First Amendment rights. It's similar at all newspapers. So, when student editors ask that the final power be given to them, I think: "You are asking for a legal right that I don't have, and have never had. You can forget it."
This was the subject of a legislative hearing and a forum arranged by the Washington News Council. The forum opened with the key question: Who owns the student press? The bill's supporters said the people owned it, the readers owned it or the students owned it, or some minestrone of the above. Eddie Reed, math specialist at the Tukwila School District, set them straight: "The school district owns it."
Then it should serve the school district's purposes: education, an activity that requires adult supervision.
But there is a problem. The school district is part of government. Brian Schraum, a Washington State University student, said, "I believe the government should never be involved in the editorial process." Several people quoted the newspaper editor's old line: "When I do it, it's editing. When the government does it, it's censorship."
And when the principal of a public high school does it, what is it? By profession, the principal is neither a publisher nor a censor. He's a manager. When he does it, it's management — the same as in a private school.
A good principal will wield his pen lightly, keeping in mind that the main purpose of the school paper is to educate the students who write it.
"I have never censored an article," said Jonathan Kellett, principal of Stadium High School in Tacoma. But he recalled a case in which he would have blocked a letter to the editor, had he been principal. It was an anonymous letter from a girl alleging racial intimidation on a school bus — a case too serious to be handled that way.
Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center of Arlington, Va., said Kellett was a reasonable principal, but that many principals weren't. But is the solution to that problem to give the legal power to the student?
"We're talking young pups here," said Reed.
HB 1307 would give students the entire power at public colleges and most of the power in public high schools — which is where the controversy is. It would allow the high-school principal to read the paper before going to press and to make changes to avoid libel, invasion of privacy or incitement to disruption. If he changed anything, he and the school district could face a lawsuit for going beyond these exceptions. If he changed nothing, all the liability would be held by the student editor (and perhaps his parents).
The students who spoke for the bill said they were willing to take the responsibility. But when a teenager says, "I'll take the responsibility," what does it mean? Maybe not a lot.
Most interesting was the attitude of the teachers. They all supported the bill. Though it would leave a teacher with no more legal power than the principal, legal power is not the only kind of power there is. The teacher is with the students. Often the conflicts over what can be printed are between the teacher and the principal.
Really, this is a bill to enhance the power of journalism teachers. It allows the students to pretend they are adult journeymen, which they are not, and allows the teachers to get the principals off their backs. It has little to do with the world those students will inhabit if they go to work for a real newspaper.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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