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The Campus Beat #6

The tug of war continues over students’ free speech and press rights.

First, the good news: In Oregon, Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) signed a bill on July 13 that, for the first time ever, protects under one statute both high school and college students’ right to a free press. The law states, “student journalists are responsible for determining content of school-sponsored media.”

The bad news is not far behind. According to The Student Press Law Center (SPLC), the law was the subject of plenty of debate and revisions. A SPLC press release states, “The House Judiciary Committee amended the HB 3279 by removing ‘advertising’ from a list of protected student expressions for high school students and deleting a clause that would have allowed for the awarding of attorney's fees and costs to students who successfully sue their school for violations of the law. The Senate Judiciary Committee removed a provision that designated college publications as ‘public forums’ and discarded a guarantee that student media advisers who refuse to censor student publications cannot be fired or transferred.”

Therefore, public school administrators, and by default, the state, can still censor what advertisements high school journalists publish (and thus, indirectly regulate their financial independence). More disturbingly, college publications in Oregon may still be considered curricular functions and not “public forums of expression,” which means they can still be censored by administrators. Furthermore, faculty members who advise publications can still be fired for refusing censorship. One can only imagine how legislators who supported this bill define “progress”. The state may have taken one step forward, but seduced by the illusion that this law will make a difference, may have taken two steps backwards.

Charles Lane reports in The Washington Post that in June the Supreme Court ruled that high school principals can “punish speech or demonstrations that may ‘reasonably be viewed’ as promoting illegal drug use.” What “reasonably be viewed” means remains ambiguous. For example, if a student wears a Bob Marley t-shirt to an off-campus school event, can that be interpreted as promoting illegal drug use? The ruling originated from the infamous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner that was displayed by a Juneau, Alaska high school senior as the Olympic torch relay team passed his school in 2002.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said, “Student speech celebrating illegal drug use at a school event, in the presence of school administrators and teachers…poses a particular challenge for school officials working to protect those entrusted to their care from the dangers of drug abuse.” But is this banner really a “celebration” of drug use, given the fact that the student indicated the banner meant nothing specific and that he was not promoting illegal drug use? Such a banner could easily be interpreted as advocating the use of medicinal marijuana; are students not allowed to express an opinion about that public policy issue?

Lane writes, “But yesterday's ruling was the first time the court has said that schools can prohibit a student expression that was neither obscene nor published under the school's auspices.” Although the ruling narrowly received a majority (another 5-4 decision), and although the five justices echoed Justice Samuel Alito’s statement that “yesterday's ruling ‘provides no support for any restriction of speech that can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue,’” many unlikely groups aligned to support the student including civil libertarians, gay rights advocates, and Christian organizations.

These alarming trends are exactly why Warren Watson, Director of the J-Ideas program, is calling for more “professional journalists…(to) take a stronger role in high school newsrooms.” In an article for Poynteronline, Watson argues, “Student journalists are in the process of learning the First Amendment. Student journalism is education in action. Censorship subverts the true learning of journalism.”

The tug of war continues.

Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.

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