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Free Speech for Students Proposed


By:LISA ROBINETT
State Capital Bureau

January 24, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ Washington reporters had a field day with the Connie Chung B-word interview.

But what if the B-word came from a high school administrator and the reporter was a high school student writing for the school newspaper?

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that school administrators do have the right to stop a story from publication.

As a result of that court decision, some Missouri lawmakers have been pushing legislation to provide high school students with free press rights to their school newspapers.

The bill would give secondary school journalism students the right to publish any story without the consent of a school official.

A section of the bill specifically states that the views in the publication may not be taken as an expression of the administration's principles, which exempts the school from liability.

Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City, introduced the bill as a response to the 1988 Hazelwood East censorship case. The U.S. Supreme Court held that school officials have the right to censor any school-sponsored expressive speech activities. This allowed administrators to edit student publications before they are printed.

Some say that school administrators have been overreacting to the Hazelwood ruling by requiring that every story land on their desk for approval.

The court left each state to decide the amount of censorship allowed in schools. Iowa and Kansas have already considered legislation similar to Wiggin's bill, said Mark Sableman, president of eastern Missouri's American Civil Liberties Union.

Sableman said his organization supports the bill because it would permit instructors to teach journalism more effectively and lead to more enthusiasm among students.

``It is now taught as a dictate on high rather than creative learning,'' Sableman said.

Also, the legislation would allow students to learn about the American Constitution and Bill of Rights under the guidance of a good instructor, Sableman said.

``The true value of the First Amendment is freedom of expression,'' he said.

Even though the legislation would permit students to print anything without having to obtain permission, they still are subject to the same legal guidelines as professional reporters.

The students can be held legally responsible for obscene material, libel, slander, or any material that disrupts the ``orderly operation of a school.''

But administrators are wary of the leeway given to students.

``Somebody has to call the shots here,'' said Bob Howe of the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals. ``Students need to learn an appreciation of the guidelines.''

Sableman contends that students will have a firmer grasp of professional guidelines if they are responsible for their work.

``It teaches editorial responsibility and judgment,'' he said. ``We don't want them to be Connie Chungs. We want them to learn and debate concepts in the field before they get out there.''

School officials also question how realistic this freedom is in journalism.

``Publishers in the real world wouldn't let reporters do what they want,'' Howe said.

But Sableman suggested that the classroom setting has different priorities.

``They're not putting out the newspaper for money,'' Sableman said. ``The paper put out by the school is a unique thing; it's for education.''