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Legislation to shield student journalists heads to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk

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PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers on Tuesday sent legislation to Gov. Doug Ducey that would shield high school and college level journalists across the state from administrative censorship for work under their school-sponsored media.

The Arizona Senate unanimously approved the amended measure after all legislators in the chamber voted for the original bill in February. The House passed it on a 41-19 vote Monday despite strong opposition from some majority lawmakers.

The measure now heads to Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk for consideration.

Senate Bill 1384 by Republican state Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Yee would safeguard First Amendment protections for student journalists at public schools, community colleges, and universities from being censored by their school’s administration.

Yee recalled her long standing attempt to get broader protections for student journalists as she voted for the measure on the Senate floor.

The Senate majority leader read minutes from a 1992 committee hearing where she testified as a high school journalist and cartoonist in favor of a similar bill that also would have increased press freedom protections for student reporters at all academic levels.

“The bill back then was a bipartisan effort as it has been today,” Yee said. “First Amendment rights should not be about whether you are a conservative or a liberal. Our founders gave us these free speech rights because our country was founded on freedom.”

Yee has said she does not think students should have to self-edit their journalism work.

The measure directs each school district, community college and university to create a written policy containing standards or guidelines for its school-sponsored media.

But the bill limits the guidelines’ restrictions to content that is libelous, invades personal privacy, violates federal or state law, or “materially and substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school.”

An amendment to the bill also requires policies to prohibit lewd and obscene content and include a student journalist code of ethics.

Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth suggested the bill is not needed because the U.S. constitution already guarantees free speech.

“The First Amendment already exists,” Farnsworth said during the House’s final vote.

“But in schools we limit that free speech for a purpose, and what this does is take the shackles off of those limits because we think that a student ought to have the right to express their views unfettered with a few exceptions.”

Farnsworth questioned whether the bill would or would not allow situations where student journalists could express views and content at their will, such as support for abortion or harmful comments about other students.

He said the measure is much broader than the First Amendment and would allow students the “right to essentially say whatever they want.”

Various students testified in favor of the bill at a House committee hearing in March. Henry Gorton, a student journalist at Sunnyslope High School in the Glendale Union High School District, said the legislation would protect students’ ability to fully participate as reporters.

“It is our responsibility as student journalists to pursue the truth and to take a close and investigative look at challenging issues,” Gorton said.

“Unfortunately, challenging issues may be unpalatable to our administrators, and they may seek to avoid them and to limit our ability to bring important issues and discussions to the student body_and that limits our influence and our meaning as a newspaper.”

An amendment to the bill allows public schools to prohibit publication of school-sponsored media content but administrators would have “the burden of providing lawful justification without undue delay.”

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