My first hands-on exposure to journalism came in my senior year of high school, when I was an editor on the yearbook.

In college I worked for the student newspaper, and as a graduate student I contributed guest op-eds. I was also a paperboy as a young teen, a job that may not actually exist anymore.

But it’s accurate to say that I wouldn’t be a journalist today were it not for that formative experience. That’s why it gives me a measure of joy to see the Hawaii Legislature taking a stand for the First Amendment.

Legislature Opening day 2020 with a wide view of the House of Representatives.
Opening day in the House of Representatives. More than half of the chamber backs a freedom of the press bill supporting public school students. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

House Bill 1529 calls for allowing student journalists at public schools “to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in school-sponsored media.”

The bill’s preamble reads:

The legislature finds that states may enhance the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution through state laws and regulations.

The legislature further finds that student journalists attending Hawaii public schools need additional protection against censorship.

HB 1529 hardly gives student journalists carte blanche.

The bill does not protect student expression that is obscene, libelous or slanderous. Invasion of privacy is not warranted, and students won’t be allowed to incite breaking of the law or seriously disrupt orderly school operations.

But it does ensure that prior restraint will not be employed in school-sponsored media.

“School officials shall have the burden of showing justification without undue delay prior to a limitation of student expression under this section,” the bill reads. “If the prescribed time for review elapses without a decision, the material prepared for school-sponsored media shall be considered authorized.”

‘Unthinking Robots’

HB 1529 received several pieces of glowing testimony.

“I am sure you will agree that we don’t want students growing up to be unthinking robots, and performing journalism under the threat of censorship or discipline could stifle the free flow of ideas,” said Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Jay Hartwell, president of the Hawaii Publishers Association, which sponsors the annual Hawaii High School Journalism Awards with support from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, wrote, “Imagine what that competition would be like if the state’s principals told their students they could not publish stories because of concerns about the content. How do you strive to be the best when you are not given a chance or know that you will not be given a chance?”

Ryan Ozawa is a tech guru and former editor in chief of Ka Leo O Hawaii at UH Manoa and Ke Kalahea at UH Hilo — and a former high school student journalist at Trojan Times (now Mililani Times) at Mililani High School.

He said, “We are in the midst of a period of American history where the role of journalists is both more important than ever, and yet under constant attack by both political and market forces. We need to be fostering the next generation of truth seekers, investigators, and storytellers to continue to function as a critical check on both government and corporate overreach, as well as to document the trials and triumphs of our local communities.”

Dept of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during meeting.
Department of Education Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is supportive of student expression, but she wants to make sure House Bill 1529 does not invite unwanted liability concerns. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The only concern about the legislation came from Christina Kishimoto, the state superintendent of education. Understandably, she wanted clarification on the Department of Education’s liability in any civil or criminal action for the publication of material by student journalists “in the exercise of rights under this measure.”

In fact, the bill explains that no state agency, member of the board, officer of the department, or employee of any agency or the board “shall be held responsible in any civil or criminal action for the publication or other expression of material by student journalists in the exercise of rights under this section.”

As well, student media advisors can’t be fired or disciplined.

“We need to be fostering the next generation of truth seekers.” — Ryan Ozawa, tech guru

If the bill passes, Hawaii will join 14 others states that have adopted student press freedom laws like HB 1529, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center. Another 10 are actively considering adoption of similar measures.

“With more than 100 combined years of history with these laws the verdict is clear; student press freedom laws do not impact the safety of the school or keep administrators from making the right decision,” the center said in its testimony. “In no state has there been an outbreak of unethical journalism or lawsuits. Not a single school has had a libel lawsuit.”

HB 1529 now awaits a full House vote and then Senate consideration. The fact that a majority of House representatives helped co-sponsor Rep. Takashi Ohno’s bill is heartening, as is the fact that it cleared the triple hurdle of three separate committees.

Register to attend our next Civil Cafe: Legislative Update. Panelists include House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, and Civil Beat public health reporter Eleni Gill. It’s at noon, Wednesday, March 4, in Room 329 at the Hawaii State Capitol.

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