Journalism students at Arizona’s high schools and universities recently won major free speech protections from the Arizona State Legislature.
Senate Bill 1384 was one of the last bills passed this legislative session. With a 41-19 vote in the House and a 29-0 vote in the Senate, the bill grants First Amendment protections to student journalists, whether writing for a school-sponsored publication like those of most high schools or a fiscally independent publication like those of many state colleges.
Arizona Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Yee [R-District 20, Phoenix] enthusiastically sponsored the bill.
As a high school student in 1992, Yee had written an article about drug dealing in her school’s parking lot, which included a caricature of her then-principal.
The principal censored the article, prompting state legislators at the time to begin moving for a press freedom bill.
Yee was later called on to testify before a legislative committee. Now 25 years later, Yee’s bill is now law, granting press freedoms she had been denied as a student. Student journalists now have the same freedoms as adults.
Neither adult nor student papers can publish material that is libelous or slanderous and Arizona media law prohibits the unwarranted invasion of privacy of private individuals.
The bill is somewhat stricter than press freedoms for adult journalists as students cannot print material that “violates federal or state law” or that “creates the imminent danger of inciting students to violate the law or district regulations or materially and substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the public school, community college or university.” But most importantly, the bill eliminates school administrators’ “prior restraint,” i.e., censorship of the publication of news stories, photos or editorials that school administrators may not like for personal or political reasons.
For instance, in April, student journalists at Pittsburg High School in Kansas began investigating the background of their newly-hired principal and discovered she had fabricated her academic credentials. Their paper’s investigation led to her resignation. Had Kansas not protected students’ journalistic liberty, the unqualified principal could have nixed the article before the investigative story even started.
I contacted several of our former summer interns, all of whom who were journalism students at Sedona Red Rock High School at the time of their internship.
One student had written an investigative news story about the Sedona-Oak Creek School District budget override, which was being led by Governing Board member Zachary Richardson. The student personally received “a bunch of ugly emails from Richardson” and according to the student, school administrators implemented prior review of all future stories. During the rest of that year, students avoided writing about controversial topics, no matter how important they felt they were to their fellow students.
Another student had tried writing about what state budget cuts would mean to students, but the article was simply nixed.
A third student said all editorial content had to be read over by Principal Darrin Karuzas or Vice Principal Deana DeWitt before being sent to publishing.
A fourth student said the entire paper was under prior review for a full year after making a word choice error in a school budget story.
Nearly all high school publications in Arizona are overseen by a journalism teacher or advisor who works as a de facto publisher, just like we professional newspapers have, making sure stories are fair, unbiased, lawfully reported and free from libel.
With the passage of SB 1384 Arizona lawmakers state clearly they trust students and their journalistic advisors without oversight from administrators. We applaud their efforts. We also trust our local journalism students will appreciate the weight and power of this new freedom in the years to come and eagerly anticipate what they will publish in The Sting student newspaper and in the Scorpion Shout Out column, printed in our newspaper every Wednesday.
Christopher Fox Graham
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