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Some Student Journalists Regaining Press Freedoms

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Over the past two years, there’s been a small wave of press freedom laws passing across the country. And they’re all focused on student press freedom.

It all started in 2015 when university students in North Dakota proposed a bill to the state legislature that protected a student’s ability to exercise freedom of speech through the press at their school. It passed, and since then a dozen more states have enacted similar laws. 

Florida’s not one of them.

The most recent one passed just a last week in Rhode Island, where the governor is now considering signing the state’s Student Journalists' Freedom Of Expression Act. 

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said laws like this are important, as student journalists haven’t had the same free speech protections as professional journalists since 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “students shed some of their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate.”  

The Hazelwood case decision, she said, was a devastating blow to supporters of the First Amendment but also has affected the way high school and student journalists have been treated as a result.

“This decision has been used to justify many schools disciplining students who criticize the college, regulating art projects. It’s been broadly applied to every form of First Amendment speech,” she said.

A tiny non-profit organization – the Student Press Law Center– has been behind the recent push for state-level laws that focus on protecting the free speech of student journalists. McBride said the mostly volunteer group also provides legal assistance to high school and college journalists who find themselves crosswise.

While the state student press laws address free speech, they don’t give young journalists a pass on the importance of accuracy. McBride said the laws include expectations that the journalists be held accountable if libel or slander occur – the same standards professional journalists must uphold.

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