Assembly passes Wirths bill that protects student journalists, addresses administrative censorship

Assembly passes Wirths bill that protects student journalists, addresses administrative censorship

Harold J. Wirths

TRENTON, N.J. – Student journalists working for school-sponsored media, like newspapers or blogs, could soon be guaranteed freedom of expression rights and protected from administrative censorship under a bill passed by the Assembly Thursday.

The bill (A169/S108), sponsored by Assemblyman Hal Wirths, gives students in public schools, as well as public colleges and universities, the ability to determine the content of school-sponsored media.

“Students who have been critical of school policies or decisions made by boards of education have been silenced by advisers or other school officials and their voices deserve to be heard,” Wirths (R-Sussex) said. “We live in a world where it is all too easy to tune out differing or uncomfortable opinions or viewpoints, but it is critical to a free society that we allow everyone to express themselves. Free student press gives budding journalists a platform to share stories that should not be suppressed. Censoring students sets a dangerous precedent.”

During an Assembly committee debate on the bill, one high school administrator threatened to do away with the newspaper altogether if school officials couldn’t retain editorial control.

“Student journalists often serve as important watchdogs by holding those in power accountable for their actions that otherwise may be swept under the rug. Unfortunately, school-sponsored media is more easily censored,” Wirths said. “This legislation upholds the principles of the First Amendment. It’s these principles that make America the land of the free. We should never be afraid to print the truth and should always encourage the freedom of press.”

Except in cases where a story is libelous, incites violence or constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, student reporters would have the right to free speech under the bill.

Schools would be required to adopt a written policy concerning student freedom of expression in accordance with the provisions of the bill by the first full school year after enactment. Additionally, school employees would be shielded from retaliation for acting to protect a student engaged in freedom of expression.