Wirths’ bill protecting student journalists and preventing administrative censorship advances in Assembly

Wirths’ bill protecting student journalists and preventing administrative censorship advances in Assembly

Harold J. Wirths

TRENTON, N.J. – Student journalists in public schools and colleges could soon be guaranteed freedom of expression rights and protected from administrative censorship under a bill advanced by the Assembly Education Committee today and sponsored by Assemblyman Hal Wirths.

“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,” said Wirths (R-Sussex). “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.”

By prohibiting administrative censorship, the bill (A169) would essentially reverse Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 Supreme Court decision that permitted school officials to exercise restraint of student newspapers. 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.

“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,” said Wirths. “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.”

Public schools and higher education institutions would be required to adopt a written policy concerning student freedom of expression in accordance with the provisions of the bill.  Additionally, school employees would be shielded from retaliation for acting to protect a student engaged in freedom of expression.

The Senate unanimously passed an identical bill (S108) on March 5, 2020. The bill now goes to the speaker for further consideration.