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Our view: Young journalists need First Amendment practice

For many activities, a minimum age makes sense.

Children lack the physical, mental and emotional maturity for driving, drinking, voting, serving in the military, getting married. Solution? We don’t let them do those things until they’re older.

But thinking? Surely, thinking is not among those restricted activities. We encourage thinking from birth. Thinking – including the comparison and evaluation of competing ideas – is a desirable trait at any age, and we want our schools to cultivate it.

One of many logical ways for that to happen is to establish and empower student newspapers in high schools, colleges and universities. Give students a real-life experience in First Amendment freedom.

That’s easier said than done, and the question of how much authority school administrators have to censor student publications has been to court often. In Olympia this year, some legislators are trying, again, to clarify the extent of students’ press-freedom rights – and to draw the line liberally enough that it truly honors the Bill of Rights.

Oddly, this worthy goal is difficult for many elected lawmakers to embrace, even though they daily model the vigorous exchange of conflicting points of view. When House Bill 1307 was introduced last year, it eventually passed the House 58-37, but the Senate let it die. HB1307 has been reintroduced this year along with a Senate version (Senate Bill 6449) which awaits consideration by the Judiciary Committee.

It’s true that the idea of turning adolescent journalists loose with their untempered ideas is a little scary, but the pending legislation isn’t that liberal. It spells out a range of content that would be prohibited – obscenity, libel, unwarranted invasion of privacy, incitement to violence, substantial disruption of school operations. Enforced responsibility in those areas is not going to undermine young journalists’ rights; rather, it will give them a sense of the boundaries that community newspapers contend with.

Outside those exceptions, however, no principal or superintendent could spike a story just because, say, it criticized an influential figure or second-guessed the football coach or demonstrated the ineffectiveness of a school policy. Things, in other words, that might anger a school official or cause discomfort or embarrassment.

The bill specifies that the selection, preparation and publication of the newspaper’s content would have to adhere to normal professional expectations, but that would be between the student journalists and their adviser.

And no adviser could be fired for refusing to censor unsettling copy. In fairness, the school and its administrators could not be sued over it, unless they interceded to alter or withhold content.

The proposal strikes a fair balance. Still, if it becomes law, it would be remarkable if student publications didn’t sometimes cause ulcers and anxiety. It would be disappointing if they didn’t.

In time, inexperienced teens develop into skilled drivers, but not without ample time behind the wheel. The same approach will help children grow into citizens.


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