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Student journalists push for free speech rights at ND Legislature

BISMARCK - Student journalists packed a room in the Capitol on Tuesday - not to report on the Legislature but to show support for a bill that offers greater protection to student media.

BISMARCK – Student journalists packed a room in the Capitol on Tuesday – not to report on the Legislature but to show support for a bill that offers greater protection to student media.

A former editor of the Dakota Student, the student newspaper at the University of North Dakota, told the House Education Committee she worried she would be next to go when her staff reported on the firing of school employees.

“The fact that, as journalists, we were afraid we would be fired or have our academic careers threatened for writing stories that were valid, important and necessary, simply because we were student journalists, is unacceptable,” Carrie Sandstrom said.

High school students also testified, including Logan Ahern, of West Fargo High School.

The assistant editor of The Packer student newspaper said he’s grateful his staff does not need the permission of administrators to produce the student publication.

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“Without this benefit, we may not have had the opportunity to report on the firing of the longtime football coach or students being inhibited of their freedom of expression in the school band department,” he said.

If adopted, House Bill 1471, sponsored by Rep. Alex Looysen, R-Jamestown, would make North Dakota the eighth state with a law that acknowledges student journalists’ free speech rights. The boards of education in two other states, plus the District of Columbia, have also made policies providing similar protections, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

The bill would guarantee student journalists the right to exercise free speech in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the school supports the media financially or students participate as part of a class.

In effect, it would protect students from the encroachment of free speech restrictions set by the Hazelwood precedent, said Steve Listopad, assistant professor and student media director at Valley City State University.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case that school administrators can issue prior restraint of student media, meaning they can ax a student journalist’s article before it gets published.

Listopad said Hazelwood opens the door to an authoritarian environment where instructors cannot adequately teach students about civic engagement.

“We can’t teach them to own their words when they don’t own their words,” he said.

LoMonte said censorship justified under Hazelwood applies to publications in a curricular setting, such as a student newspaper produced as part of a class.

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Nervous advisers

In his job at the Student Press Law Center, he fields queries from student publication advisers nervous about stories that reveal something unflattering about the school.

“Many of the most troubling phone calls I take are not from students at all,” LoMonte said. “They are from teachers saying, ‘On the one hand, I am a loyal employee of my school. I need this job, I need this paycheck, I need this health insurance. On the other hand, I know ethically what is right.’”

In Bismarck, adviser Sue Skalicky said she gives the Century High School principal a heads up when the Century Star newsmagazine covers a touchy subject. But she draws the line there. Administrators do not read the paper prior to distribution, she said.

It’s important to students that administrators not dictate what they can and cannot print, Century Star editor Kacey Peterson said.

“We wouldn’t be able to publish stories about such things as teen pregnancy, eating disorders or racism – all topics that have impacted our student body,” she said.

HB 1471 would also prohibit colleges from disciplining students based solely on their speech. That provision would extend to private colleges, though it allows for an exception when the speech violates the tenants of a religious organization that controls the school.

“This exemption is not sufficient,” said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, who spoke in opposition while asking lawmakers to change that part of the bill to apply only to public colleges.

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States should not interfere with private institutions, said Dodson, adding that the bill would also open the tenants of religious organizations to review by courts.

Dodson said several religious groups at state colleges want lawmakers to expand the bill to protect the rights of religious organizations on campus.

School administrators also asked for one change.

Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, testified in support but said legislators should include language allowing schools to set parameters to prevent hate speech or other lewd or profane material.

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