Censorship | Prior Restraint | Protected Speech

Colorado Looks to Strengthen Protections for Student Journalists and Their Faculty Advisers

Senate Chamber, Colorado State Capitol Building, Denver, Colorado, USA. February 9, 2007. Greg O’Beirne/Wikimedia Commons

A Democratic state representative and former journalism teacher from Colorado, Barbara McLachlan, is pushing for legislation that would provide extra protections for student journalists and the teachers who advise them. 

“This bill will update our law in Colorado and get it into the 21st century,” McLachlan told The Colorado Sun. She and state Senator Donald Coram introduced the bill in early January. She told the Colorado newspaper that the bill is “a good reminder for everyone about what this law says and why it’s important.”

The need for explicit legal protections for student journalists can be traced back to the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that upheld the school’s right to censor stories concerning teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce. Although the court made clear their ruling should not be interpreted by school administrators as license for unlimited censorship, some free speech advocates have encouraged states to spell out where those boundaries lie. 

Colorado already passed the Student Free Expression Law in 1990, but McLachlan’s new bill (House Bill 1062) would go a step further, providing protections for broadcast and digital journalism. If passed, HB1062 would also prevent school administrations from retaliating against advisers, who can be the first targets when a student newspaper publishes a controversial story.  

According to The Colorado Sun, some faculty advisers have been targeted by angry parents and school board members for allowing students to publish controversial stories. The new law would expressly prohibit public schools from “dismiss[ing], suspend[ing], disciplin[ing], reassign[ing], transferr[ing], or otherwise retaliat[ing]” an employee for refusing to infringe on a student’s constitutional speech rights.

The bill is scheduled for its first hearing on February 6th, in the House Education Committee.

The Colorado Sun