Texas legislators question whether student journalists need press freedom guarantees

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high school journalism

Texas lawmakers who want to guarantee press freedoms to high school journalists are getting pushback from skeptical colleagues, some of whom have suggested that young journalists are getting too little oversight from their schools rather than too much.

“I’m just kind of confused here — why do you need this?” state Rep. Dan Huberty, chair of the House Public Education Committee, asked Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, as she laid out her House Bill 2244 earlier this month.  “We have the First Amendment in this country. Why do you think you need to have a bill that says what we’re already allowed to do?”

The House committee passed the bill with a 12-0 vote.

González noted that there have been several cases of school administrators meddling with student reporting in the past year.

On the other side of the capitol building, advocates of the companion measure, Senate Bill 514, were quizzed by Senate committee members over the usefulness of the act.

“We’re basically taking away oversight, saying,  ‘For free speech we want to take away some of that oversight,’ ” state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, a member of the Senate Committee on Education, said. “We want to be careful what we’re asking for with taxpayer dollars going to fund our schools. We want to make sure we’re not putting in print a lot of propaganda and taking away oversight.”

State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, also on the committee, added that a school newspaper is a “government publication.” Hall said outlets that “run their own website and have their own blog, is about the only place that truly independent journalism really exists.”

Other than that, Hall said, most school news outlets are subject to oversight from administrators who set boundaries on what gets published.

“This is not a free-market newspaper,” Hall said. “This is a government publication. It’s owned and operated and paid for by taxpayer dollars. And that puts the publication itself in a different category.  It is a government publication. Whatever we do, we have to make sure there are bounds on what is being done.”

Supporters say the bills are needed to clarify the effects of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The court ruled in that case that a school administration has the right to review stories before publishing.  But it left open the reasons for that oversight, nor did the decision set limits on when such oversight can constitutionally be used.

“Hazelwood created a lack of clarity,” said state Sen. José Rodríguez in introducing the Senate version. The El Paso Democrat told colleagues his bill would create “guardrails” without sacrificing a level of independence for students trying to learn journalism.

Rodriguez introduced similar legislation last session, but it never got a hearing. The current bill on the Senate side remains in committee.  

The measures are linked in part to an episode in the Prosper school district north of Dallas. Last May, Prosper High School Principal John Burdett fired Lori Oglesbee-Petter, who had been advisor to the student paper for over three decades. Burdett took the action after several incidents in which he forced the school newspaper, the Eagle Nation Online, to remove content.

A new advisor was brought in, but the school’s review policy was revoked after the story gained national attention.

Texas is among six states whose legislatures are currently considering measures aimed at protecting student journalists. Fourteen states already have laws protecting high school journalists, including Vermont, California, Rhode Island, Colorado and Nevada.

The bills can take a long time to gain acceptance from lawmakers. High schoolers can’t vote and have little lobbying heft.

An anti-censorship measure approved in 2017 in Washington state had been debated since 1992. Bills seeking to protect student journalists were proposed in many states the wake of Hazelwood, but few passed initially.

“After Hazelwood, there was a round of attempts to neutralize its effects,” said Frank LoMonte, a senior law fellow at the Student Press Law Center. As technology evolved, he said, “it became clear that there is so much access to information, it makes no sense to pull back a story on something like teenage pregnancy, since anyone can get information on teenage pregnancy anywhere.”

Lobbyists for the Texas Association of School Boards or the Texas Association of School Administrators registered in opposition to the House bill but didn’t testify. Both organizations declined to make someone available to be interviewed for this story.

Oglesbee-Petter, who is now a consultant, said school administrators were not prepared for the bills and had no arguments ready.

“Do they really care about this issue, or do they only care when it’s time to put the brakes on something?” she said.

In Prosper, Burdett vetted the newspaper for material that was controversial or ran counter to “community norms.”  He sought content that was “uplifting.”

“We can say facts are all we want and that’s great,” Burdett said in a private meeting with Eagle Nation editor Neha Madhira last year, which Madhira taped. “Things should be fact-based. Is there a way to say that that we are encouraging and uplifting and encouraging to others?”

At another point, after asking why she didn’t do a follow-up on a particular story, Burdett asked Madhira, “Do you think I’m justified in doing prior review when we’re not putting things out there that are whole? Because that’s my job, is to make sure that if something has our name on it, that it reflects our community values. ”

Burdett declined to comment.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected]

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