A bill that would have strengthened Hawaii student journalists’ First Amendment rights is dead for this year after the Senate Judiciary committee — its last stop before a full legislative vote was to take place — deferred the measure Tuesday.

House Bill 1529, or the Hawaii Student Free Expression Act, is a carryover bill from 2019 that cleared three House committees and the Senate Education committee right before the coronavirus shut down legislative activity in March.

The bill sought to allow student journalists at public schools to exercise their freedom of speech and freedom of the press by protecting them from censorship, except in cases where the expression is obscene, libelous or constitutes hate speech.

McKinley HS Teacher/Journalism advisor assists 14-year-old Trent Pham, a freshman at McKinley High School with some of his basketball photographs.

Cindy Reves, McKinley High’s journalism advisor, co-founded the Hawaii Scholastic Journalism Association, which championed the bill.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The measure would have prohibited prior restraint of material produced by school-sponsored media and required school officials to show justification for limiting such speech “without undue delay.”

HB 1529, when first introduced last year, never got a hearing.

The fact it got so far as it did this year, with a strong show of support, including from the Student Press Law Center, Hawaii Publishers Association and Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter, was very encouraging, said Cindy Reves, advisor for The Pinion, McKinley High’s student-run newspaper.

“It just means that next year when we come back, I’ll have a completely different feeling about the bill. It’s going to feel I’m coming from a much stronger position,” she said.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, said the deferral was based on several questions lingering about some of the definitions in the bill.

“The bottom line was, the bill wasn’t ready to go and there’s only so much we can do at a time,” he said, referring to the time limitations due to COVID-19 during this 3-week session re-convening ending July 10.

He said among the committee’s concerns was whether the term “school-sponsored media” would pertain to only a student journalist or any student who would publish something online.

“In a normal year, I would have fixed what we could in the time allotted and tried to move it on. But this year is not a normal year,” he said. “Anything we send out (of committee) at this point, the idea is to send it out in final form so the other body can accept it.”

Fourteen states around the U.S. have adopted student press freedom laws, according to the Student Press Law Center.

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