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New Md. Law Protects Journalism Teachers From Reprisals

4835061778_4b72f89ecf_o.jpgMaryland journalism teachers will be protected from being punished for something their students wrote in the school newspaper, under a new law signed by Gov. Larry Hogan today.

The law, which goes into effect on Oct. 1, aims to guarantee high school and college student journalists the ability to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in student media, regardless of whether the school financially supports the publication or if it is produced as part of a class. Administrators will not be able to censor student journalists' work, unless the language is profane, vulgar, lewd, obscene, or has the intent to harass, threaten, or intimidate—or if the work is libelous or slanderous, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates the law, or incites students to disrupt educational operations.

The law also stipulates that a student media adviser "may not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for protecting student journalists' right to free speech or for refusing to prevent students from reporting and publishing stories that are protected by the new law.

It's not uncommon for high school journalism teachers and student-media advisers to fear retaliation from school administrators when their students publish a controversial story. In October, for instance, a New Jersey high school teacher sued the Pemberton Township Board of Education for allegedly violating his civil rights when he was removed as student-media adviser in 2014. The teacher, Bill Gurden, pointed to the administration's censorship of three articles in the student newspaper as the reason for his dismissal as adviser.

In Maryland, the Mount St. Mary's University student newspaper adviser was fired in Feburary after his student reporters published an article that quoted the private university's president comparing struggling freshmen to bunnies that needed to be drowned. He later was reinstated on the faculty (after the president himself resigned), but didn't return to his role as newspaper adviser. 

The new Maryland law states that student-media advisers may not use their position to influence a student journalist to promote an official position of the school or its board of education. Despite the increased freedom students will now have, journalism teachers will still be able to teach professional standards of English and journalism to students, the law clarifies.

The Maryland-D.C. Scholastic Press Association and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association supported the bill, which passed through the legislature earlier this month with bipartisan support.

When the bill passed through the legislature, Democratic Sen. Jamie Raskin, who introduced the legislation, wrote on his Facebook page that this was important protection for both student journalists and their advisers.

"[It] will help us recruit and train the next generation of journalists. We need their skills," he wrote. "Remember what [Thomas] Jefferson said: 'Were it left to me to decide whether we [should] have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.'"

The new law was also championed by the Student Press Law Center, a legal nonprofit that advocates for student press freedom. (Full disclosure: I used to work at the SPLC as their publications fellow.) The SPLC has supported similar campaigns in about 20 states in a national "New Voices" movementat least seven states besides Maryland have bills currently going through the legislature to protect student journalists from censorship.

Source: Image by Flickr user MoMoNWI, licensed under Creative Commons

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