Committee curbs principal powers over high school student media

Kimberly Yee speaking at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona on Aug. 26, 2014. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

PHOENIX – A bill to expand freedom of the press protections for student journalists at public schools, community colleges and universities across Arizona passed through the committee on education unanimously today.

Senate Bill 1384, introduced by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Dist 20, allows student journalists across the state to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored media. It prohibits a student journalist from being disciplined for exercising that freedom. It also charges student media advisers with the responsibility to determine the content of school-sponsored media.

Section C of the bill clarifies that SB1384 does not protect or authorize libelous or slanderous work, or invasions of privacy, violations of federal or state law or work that endangers other students.

This bill effectively nullifies Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 Supreme Court Case that gave the principal of a high school the right to determine what a high school paper can publish.

Instead, the bill would turn Arizona law back to the 1969 Supreme Court Case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District in which the court agreed that student freedom of the press should be protected and said, “Students don’t shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates.”

This bill has been introduced multiple times over the past 25 years, most notably its first time when Sen. Yee testified as a 17-year old reporter for her high school paper. It did not pass that year, or any other year, but currently has bipartisan support.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Dist 11, was concerned that the bill might not be specific enough. Smith worried that without the Hazelwood precedent, there would be room for discrimination and bullying against students.

Sen. Lee responded by pointing out that the bill dedicates issues like that to the adult advisors.

David Cuillier, the director of the University of Arizona school of journalism, said he favored it because it is “a reasonable, common sense balance where students have rights to practice journalism.”

David Cuillier testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on FOIA reform last year.

Brett Fera, the director of Arizona Student Media at the University of Arizona, is hopeful the bill will succeed.

“As an individual who works in student media myself I think it’s an important discussion to have,” Fera said. “Specifically at the high school level because less protection is afforded there. It’s not something we’ve seen a ton of at the college level here in Arizona. But across the country, it’s becoming more prominent to see students and advisors punished for content decisions.”

Fera pointed to an issue with the Daily Kansan. Student government at the University of Kansas threatened to cut funding for the paper because of an editorial criticizing a student government election. The Kansan filed a lawsuit against two University of Kansas administrators. It was dismissed after the paper reached a resolution with the administrators. Both sides said they were satisfied with the results, and the Kansan still receives funding.

“While that’s never anything I’ve ever dealt with, it proves that it’s a discussion that needs to happen,” Fera said.

No one opposed to the bill spoke the committee.

The amendment and bill passed the education committee unanimously. The bill will head to the Rules Committee next.

Christianna Silva is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the school of journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at 

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