Bill To Protect Freedom Of Student Journalists Is Bad Public Policy


Anyone who reads SAB knows that I tend to be something of a free speech absolutist. I feel like the 1st amendment is pretty clear on the issue, giving us all the freedom to express ourselves. Which is why I also tend to get a little squeamish when people start proposing legislation which, in the name of protecting freedom of speech, actually ends up watering it down.

A good example of this is HB1471. It’s sponsored by Rep. Alex Looysen, a Republican from Jamestown, and its genesis was the work of a group of students on the Jamestown College campus who want to protect the free speech rights of student journalists.

Except, student journalists already have the same right to express themselves as every other American. What legislation like this does is codify distinctions in the law which make it appear as though some citizens have more free speech rights than others.

For instance, here’s the definition of a “student journalist” who would be protected by the proposed law:

www’s all well and good, but what about a student who doesn’t work for school-sponsored media? What about a student who starts a blogging reporting facts and/or opinion independent of any school-sponsored outlet?Are we suggesting that only students who meet this official definition of a journalist?

Or what about non-students who are speaking or publishing? If campus free speech is only limited to student journalists working for officially-sanctioned university publications, it would be all too easy for campuses to justify silencing people who fall outside of that definition.

There lays the rub. The 1st amendment applies to all, but if we begin to codify special classes who have extra-special speech protections, we may erode speech protections for everyone else.

Here’s another poorly thought out section of the law, which essentially codifies a heckler’s veto:

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Section “d” is the issue. Speech which incites disruption is not protected? Clearly this is intended as putting speech which calls for things like rioting or vandalism out of bounds, but what about controversial opinions or reporting which anger people?

The way this statute is written it could be seen as putting speech that is merely controversial –  speech which inspires disruption by those who find it objectionable but does not call for that disruption – outside the protection of the 1st amendment.

Meaning that anyone disagreeing with a piece of controversial speech could effectively silence that speech by reacting to it in a violent or disruptive way. This definition puts the burden for that reaction on the speaker, not the disrupters themselves, creating the heckler’s veto (more on that here).

The intentions of this legislature are no doubt pure, and laudable. Free speech and expression, perhaps more than any other ideal, are worth protecting. But this law doesn’t create protections for speech. Rather, it erodes them by narrowing the definitions of protected speech and protected speakers.

Let’s hope the legislature rejects it.