Nyler Acasio, a junior at McKinley High School, is ready to “investigate the truth and report about it” without fear after the Legislature passed a bill providing new protection from censorship for student journalists and their advisers.

The measure allows student journalists from the University of Hawaii and other public schools to exercise the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, at their school newspapers, with the exception of libelous or obscene material.

House Bill 1848 is a signature away from becoming law, a victory for advocates after some three years of legislative efforts.

“You want students to think, be critical and express that in their reporting,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki, who introduced the bill this year. “That’s why this bill is so important as students are training to be journalists.”

fault lines President William McKinley High School located at 1039 S. King Street. Honolulu, Hawaii. DOE. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
A bill to ensure more First Amendment protections for students journalists awaits the governor’s approval. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bill received no opposition.

If the bill becomes law, Hawaii would become the 16th state to join the “New Voices Movement,” a student-led grassroots effort that aims to shield student journalists from censorship and advisers from consequences.

Students generally have First Amendment protections, but the 1988 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier gave school administrators the right to censor student publications for “any reasonable legitimate pedagogical purpose.”

The Hawaii legislation would close that gap, according to Cindy Reves, adviser for McKinley High’s newspaper The Pinion. She said the measure clarifies the rights and responsibilities of student journalists, their advisers and the administrators.

Reves said Gov. David Ige is planning to hold a signing ceremony on May 23 at McKinley High.

Ige’s office declined to confirm that, saying all measures passed by the Legislature, which adjourned on Thursday, are under legal, policy and departmental review.

“Some bill signing ceremonies are in the preliminary stages of planning, but the bills must still pass the review before the governor signs them into law,” spokeswoman Jodi Leong said.

The legislation underscores the need for Hawaii student journalists to pursue or publish stories in their schools’ newspapers in efforts to promote transparency within the school communities.

But it’s been common for the young journalists to refrain from pursuing potentially controversial stories in fear of backlash against themselves or their advisers.

In one example provided in written testimony for the bill, Waipahu High student Alyssa Salcedo, news editor at The Cane Tassel, decided not to write an article that would have been critical of a school program due “to potential censorship.”

“I learned that having an article on this topic published would ‘depend on the content’ of the article,” Salcedo wrote. “I felt discouraged to continue with it and wrote about a somewhat related topic instead. It continually seemed that no matter how much I spoke about this topic, my criticism would not be well received.”

University of Hawaii Manoa student Krista Rados said she’s seen firsthand censorship at the student newspaper Ka Leo O Hawaii. The editor-in-chief said the university had pressured the newspaper to publish “a story we did not feel was right.”

“Our journalists have come to me with the idea that they must refrain from telling true stories that could threaten the university’s reputation because they fear losing enrollment status or scholarship funding,” Rados said in written testimony.

Education officials noted that the state Board of Education already has a student code of conduct acknowledging that public students have “freedom of expression and communication,” and the “right of expression in official, school-sponsored, student publications.”

Reves and her students have been pushing for this measure for three years in an effort to join the national movement. Past efforts failed after the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the economy in March 2020, prompting state lawmakers to shift priorities.

Acasio, who freelances for The Pinion, said the new law would encourage him and other students to fully express themselves and “to serve our community.”

“Being a part of media is to investigate the truth and report about it, and if we’re getting censored for simply doing that, that’s just simply wrong,” Acasio said in an interview. “So the fact that this bill gives us the guarantee that we don’t get censored is really important. It’s important that we serve our community.”

McKinley High sophomore Shane Kaneshiro has been writing for The Pinion for two years. Although he’s unsure if he’ll pursue journalism as a career, he said the experience has taught him to be more informed and to “tell both sides of the story.”

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