Last Tuesday, Michigan State Sen. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) introduced Senate Bill 0848, which aims to establish guidelines for how universities may or may not censor student publications and to provide protection for student journalists.

The Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act was co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Colbeck (R–Canton), Sen. Tom Casperson (R–Escanaba), and Sen. Steven Bieda (D–Warren).

Jones, the primary sponsor of the bill, cited frequent cases of censorship of student journalists at Michigan State University as the cause for introducing the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act.

“I was approached by students from MSU who expressed concerns over censorship,” he said in an interview. “I want their constitutional rights to be observed.”

Senate Bill 0848 includes provisions to prevent school officials from regulating content that can be published except when the articles are either libelous, an unwarranted invasion of privacy, in violation of federal or state law or capable of inciting students so as to create a clear and present danger.  

Section 5 of the Student Free Press and Civics Readiness Act establishes a framework for schools to customize their student publication guidelines under a freedom of expression policy. The policy can enable school authorities to further regulate the material that is published.  

“Each school district shall adopt a written student freedom of expression policy in accordance with this act,” the policy says. “The policy must include reasonable provisions for the time, place, and manner of student expression. The policy may also include limitations on language that is profane, harassing, threatening, or intimidating.”

Also included in the bill is a provision that provides immunity from disciplinary action for both student journalists and student media advisers for writing and publishing content that is not prohibited by the law, or by the school’s freedom of expression policy. The bill defines student media advisers as individuals who act as instructors for student journalists, or officials who supervise the newspaper’s publication.

The provision aims to prevent articles from being arbitrarily regulated by a school, or establishment of higher learning, especially in cases where student publications may be critical of the institution.

Jones said he conceptualized the bill because he wants student journalists to be able to freely exercise their constitutional rights.

“I want universities, colleges and high schools to follow the constitution that grants freedom of speech as long as reporters are not obscene or slanderous,” he said.

In an e-mail interview with the Daily, Colbeck cited fidelity to constitutional principles as his chief interest in co-sponsoring the bill.

“My interest is based first and foremost to my oath to support the Constitution which includes the 1st Amendment right to freedom of the press… I see the legislation as preventive of any abridgement of freedom of the press within schools,” Colbeck said.

Jones noted that his bill has received bipartisan support from his colleagues because of the importance placed on student journalists who may be training for a future career as reporters.

This emphasis placed on the role of student journalism, and the need for a clear set of guidelines, was echoed by Bieda in an interview with the Daily.

“Ever since the Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier there has been a vague standard which has caused confusion, and oftentimes, unwarranted censorship of legitimate journalism,” he said. “And I think that student journalism is an important field worth training for the future, so establishing this clear standard is important.”

According to Jones, the bill is scheduled to receive a hearing within the next few weeks.

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