The Voice of Cactus Shadows High School

The CS Press

Yee stands up for high school press freedom

State Senator Kimberly Yee has introduced legislation to allow high school students considerably more press freedom. Her legislation was aided by testimony from CS Press staffers before both the houses of the Arizona legislature.

Kiera Riley, opinion editor

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Journalism students and advisers alike wait anxiously as a new free speech bill snakes its way through the lawmaking process. If passed, Senate bill 1384 will allow First Amendment protections for student journalists across the state.

Introduced and sponsored by Senator Kimberly Yee, SB1384 aims to create standards for public high schools, community colleges, and universities that prevent unfair censorship on the basis of financial support from schools. Instances of censorship in scholastic publications occur across the nation because of the precedent set by the Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.

Hazelwood stated that schools have the right to set ‘high standards’ and refuse to sponsor speech that was deemed inappropriate by administrators.  

“So many students have been taught to bury the truth or let it go unreported because they know that their superiors will not allow it to be printed. SB 1384 allows students to begin practicing real journalism, so I think all students and faculty in the field should support it,” said Sara Windom, style editor for the CS Press. In March, Windom testified in front of both the Senate and House Education Committees to encourage their support of the bill.  

Although the law set by Hazelwood does still control student rights, SB1384 creates a new set of standards to be applied when reviewing student publications, which puts more power into the hands of the students. Specifically, articles can only be censored if they are libelous or slanderous, constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violate federal or state law, or disrupts the orderly operation of public schools.

“As a student, I feel relatively powerless to stand up to our administrative staff. I have bent at the knee because I wanted to graduate without a fuss. That bothers me,” said Henry Gorton, a student journalist at Sunnyslope High School. Gorton also testified in front of the Senate and the House Education committees and shared his experiences with censorship as a member of the Viking Views school newspaper.

Although this is the first time the bill is being heard in the Senate, this is not its first proposal. In 1992 at Greenway High School in Phoenix, a then 17-year-old Kimberly Yee was first coming to grips with the issue of censorship in high school publications.

“I would be sitting in my government class learning about my First Amendment rights and my freedom of press rights but I wasn’t able to exercise them in my next class which was my journalism class,” said Senator Yee.

To try and combat this problem, Yee volunteered to advocate and speak for a bill similar to SB1384 when she was a senior in high school. The bill passed through the education committee but never passed into law. Now, Yee has resurrected the bill in hopes of finishing what she started as a student.

“The difference between what happened 25 years ago and today is that I learned from some of the testimony that we heard through the course of all of the deliberation and I worked with the natural opponents of the bill,” said Yee.

Natural opponents of the bill are school administrators, superintendents and school boards because of issues with school image and community backlash. Oftentimes, scholastic publications’ coverage leads to stories that paint the school in a negative light. In other situations, principals or superintendents censor concepts that are seen as controversial by the community. With the different elements of the bill limiting the ability of administrators, many oppose the idea.

In order to bring in two different sides of the issue, Yee talked to the people both in favor of and opposed to the bill to find a compromise which maintained the central idea of the bill. The compromise allows for districts to constitute independent codes based on standards in the bills.

“There is a level of comfort with school administrators as we are moving forward because they will be able to have a policy in place at the district level,” said Yee.

Although Yee brought the bulk of the opposition on in the early stages of the bill, the proposal still faces resistance from some parties. Representative David Stringer is one of the officials on the side of the opposition. As the only no-vote during the Senate hearing, Stringer expressed his concerns regarding possible inappropriate content being printed without stricter standards.

“I tried to answer in ways that would defend journalism as a balanced and legitimate source of public dialogue. It disconcerted me that so many of our representatives harbored an implicit mistrust of the media,” said Gorton. Gorton fielded questions from Stringer throughout his testimony.

Those in favor of the bill include the Arizona Interscholastic Press Association (AIPA), students and advisers. In the first Education Committee hearing as well as the Senate hearing, students and advisers from around the state were invited to speak in favor of the bill.

“Presenting to the committee was kind of nerve wracking because I had never done something like that. I was the last one to go so the anticipation definitely built up. My voice was a bit shaky when I started but overall, I thought it went pretty well,” said Windom.   

The bill passed out of the Education Committee unanimously. Although prior to the vote, Senator Steve Smith argued that there could be loopholes allowing for inappropriate language or topics.

Yee’s response brings up the code of ethics taught in journalism classes and the position of teachers in the classroom.

“The journalism code of ethics teaches our journalism classes that you have to show both sides of the story. Otherwise, it is a lopsided story and what kind of teacher is going to promote that in their classroom?” said Yee.

The bill proceeded to pass through the Senate with one opposing vote. Representative David Stringer, the single ‘no’ vote, said that the guidelines were not strict enough. Stringer argued that students would publish inappropriate articles and face no consequences.

SB1384 then went through the House of Representatives. More questions were raised regarding the constituents of the bill. In particular, Representative Lawrence voiced his concern surrounding the maturity and ability of high school students to write an editorial, or opinion piece. Representative Lovas felt it unnecessary to include advisers in the bill; his reasoning being that teachers could be pushing their opinions onto the students. Representative Campbell expressed that he feared the ability of students to write stories that were, “out of bounds.” Finally, Representative Campbell believed that there was no need for the bill.

Senator Yee responded again by referring to the journalism code of ethics and the fact that there are qualified teachers in the classroom to ensure adherence to policy. In light of these concerns, Yee is working towards adding a section that will address the journalism code of ethics. The bill is also in the process of adding more amendments in response to the concerns brought up on the house floor. One of the amendments will allow censorship if the content is, “lewd, obscene, libelous or slanderous.”

SB1384 goes to the entirety of the legislature for a vote in the coming weeks.

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Yee stands up for high school press freedom