Michigan Lawmakers Move to Protect Student Journalism from Censorship

Freedom of Speech for Student Journalists? — Everyone in Michigan, Democrat and Republican, Should Support It. Now, More Than Ever!

A certain obnoxious Republican presidential candidate has made it his priority to slam journalists — literally, body slamming them to the ground with no justifiable provocation, and seemingly for the sheer amusement of his rabid followers. This past weekend the reviled GOP contender upped his game by blaming everybody but himself for the jackbooted thuggery of his devotees and security detail.

He’s no longer a mere sideshow, with the nomination within his greedy reach.

Among his oval office objectives is a strict curtailment of fourth estate free speech. Millennials, having nursed at the generous bosom of those freedoms found in social media, along with the protective powers of encryption technology, have the most to lose if this narcissistic, hate-filled lunatic somehow finds his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The crypto-fascist’s presidential fantasies spell nothing but trouble for both the 1st and 4th Amendments. Fascism is as fascism does, and he’s been doing it in spades.

Free speech and privacy are at stake.

Protecting the core tenets of journalism is critical, especially in Michigan, where governmental transparency is among the worst nationwide. And yet, student journalists are too often the subject of unconstitutional censorship — these are the same young men and women the state needs desperately to keep its leaders honest.

A small bipartisan group of Michigan senators have acknowledged the importance of a free and impartial press, and are offering legislation designed to shield student journalists from the heavy administrative hand of censorship burdening so many of Michigan’s public schools and universities.

Instead of encouraging budding journalists, school administrators are unfortunately choosing harsh policies of “prior review” and “prior restraint” meant to hobble meaningful content and stifle honest reporting. Student journalists, as with all reporters, are bound by laws that prohibit libel and slander along with the strict guidelines of professional journalism, yet their basic right to freedom of speech is under increasing attack. Prior review rules require an administrator to approve all articles, and restraint provisions are designed to specifically block certain topics altogether, for example pieces on religion and politics, LGBT issues, and other controversial social concerns. Not only are these policies a violation of the 1st Amendment, they simply promote bad journalism.

The Journalism Education Association describes prior review as “serving no legitimate educational purpose. Prior review leads only to censorship by school officials or to self-censorship by students with no improvement in journalistic quality or learning.”

Charles Haynes, of the Newseum Institute, addressed young reporters from across the country at the National High School Journalism Convention a little over a year ago. After spending the week with these aspiring writers, he lamented that “hearing their stories of censorship and control by school officials is cause for worry, if not despair.” Haynes explained that the disturbing tales related to him at the convention were “consistent with trends I have seen around the country. A growing number of public schools restrict school newspapers (or shut them down entirely) and, in other ways, limit student political and religious speech.”

The bipartisan group of Michigan lawmakers is proposing a substantive free press protection for student journalists — not a symbolic constitutional exercise, as is too often the case with Michigan’s dysfunctional legislature. Three of the four sponsoring Senators hold a majority on the five-member committee considering the bill. Instead of the proposal being sent to the Committee on Education, where it would normally be considered, it was shunted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill’s key sponsor Rick Jones (R-24) sits as the chair, along with fellow GOP lawmaker Patrick Colbeck (R-7), both are joined across the aisle by Steven Bieda (D-9). They have what it takes to send it to the Senate floor, and there’s no reason to doubt their intent.

The legislation would apply to school districts and state universities equally, the latter of which are measurably restrictive of free speech in general — known for instating unconstitutional policies regulating student speech and protests on campus, often at the behest of students who mistakenly believe they possess a right not to be offended by the words of others.

Michigan’s schools of higher learning score near rock-bottom with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The organization rates public institutions across the nation on 1st Amendment protections — offering three grade categories: green, yellow, and red lights for free speech, including student journalism, on campus. Michigan schools are among the worst, with the following universities receiving a red light: Eastern Michigan, Grand ValleyState, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Oakland University, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Wayne State, and Western Michigan. Not much better, with a yellow light rating, were: Michigan State, Northern Michigan, and Saginaw Valley.

A majority of concerned Democrats, Republicans, and Independents can easily agree that the blowhard GOP front-runner is bad for the state of our nation, so let’s encourage Michigan lawmakers of every stripe to reaffirm their commitment to the 1st Amendment by passing this legislation to protect student journalists.

Because we need them now more than ever to speak truth to power.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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