Law to protect student free speech

The House Judiciary Committee has approved a measure to protect students’ free speech rights.

The measure, House Bill 1307, would give students editorial control of their newspapers and other publications, deny administrators the right to prior review of such publications and require every high school to write a student free speech policy. It would also protect school staff from liability for student expression.

“The Legislature intends to ensure free speech and free press protections for both high school and college students in the state in order to encourage students to become educated, informed, and responsible members of society,” according to the first section of the bill.

The act could impact the Mercer Island School District, where administrators this school year censored an entire issue of the student newspaper, and subsequently required that their reasons for doing so be printed in the student paper.

“It sounds like it’s a great thing,” said Sara Vandenbelt, co-editor of The Islander, the MIHS newspaper. “I hope it gets passed. I know that it would really benefit our program on Mercer Island, given what’s happened in the past.”

The measure includes a list of checks on this free expression similar to the limits that are described in one U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tinker vs. Des Moines, which is considered the more liberal of two governing decisions typically applied to issues of student free speech.

Students may not produce anything that is obscene, libelous or slanderous, invasive of privacy, that violates the Federation Communications Act or any FCC rules, or that incites unlawful acts, violation of school regulations or disruption of the operation of school.

Under the measure, “expression made by students in school-sponsored media is not the expression of school policy.” School officials would not be held accountable for expressions by students unless they have interfered with or altered the content of student expression.

The measure calls for a high school “student freedom of expression policy” including provisions for the time, place and manner of student expression.

The measure would not apply to correctional institution education programs.

In other school business before the legislature, two different sex education bills requiring that sexual health education be “medically and scientifically accurate” have been introduced in the House, one with Rep. Judy Clibborn as a sponsor. The measures would both require the state office of the superintendent of public instruction survey Washington schools to identify what curricula is being used for sexual health education and report this to the Legislature on an annual basis, starting with the 2008-2009 school year.

Another House bill would declare an intent to establish an outdoor education and recreation program. According to the bill digest, this would be designed to “improve students’ performance on the essential academic learning requirements for science through participation in outdoor educational and recreational opportunities” and would also benefit student health.

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