Arizona Governor vetoes free speech bill

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) vetoed a bipartisan bill last month that would have protected student journalists from being punished for criticizing their schools.

Despite passing both the Senate and House of Representatives with bipartisan support, Ducey sided with SB 1384’s few detractors in his veto statement, according to The Arizona Republic, expressing concerns “that this bill could create unintended consequences, especially on high school campuses where adult supervision and mentoring is most important.”

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With exceptions for content that would violate the law, such as libel or incitement to violence, the bill would have prohibited public schools, including colleges and universities, from restricting or influencing the content of student publications, even when those publications are funded in whole or in part by the institution.

Moreover, administrators would be forbidden from restricting the distribution of such media, as well as from imposing disciplinary measures on a student or student media advisor in retribution for critical content.

Republican state Senator Kimberly Yee, who sponsored the legislation, explained that it was intended to circumvent the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which deemed student publications to be “limited public forums” that are subject to censorship by the schools that sponsor them.

North Dakota passed a similar law in 2015, inspiring state lawmakers in Missouri  and Nebraska to introduce their own versions last year.

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While the bill was being debated, The Daily Courier reports that several lawmakers objected on the grounds that school officials need to exercise a certain amount of control over student journalists, particularly at the high school level.

“It is the responsibility of us, as capable adults, to have some say over what students can say and at what level they can criticize governments, schools, principals absolutely free of any of the good sense that should accompany those kinds,” argued Republican state Rep. Jay Lawrence. “At the high school level they are not capable of absolutism, absolute total free speech, without adult supervision.”

Noting that student publications are generally taxpayer-supported to some extent, Rep. David Stringer agreed that “school authorities need to have some control over the content of what goes into a student newspaper.”

Democratic Rep. Ken Clark scoffed at such concerns, however, saying, “I don’t believe you can fully teach students who are trying to learn how to be responsible journalists unless you respect the First Amendment.”

[RELATED: Nebraska state legislator proposes bill to protect student journalists]

Despite ultimately passing with strong bipartisan support, though, Gov. Ducey chose to veto the legislation on May 24, spending the first two paragraphs of his veto statement proclaiming his “strong” support for free speech and the free press before closing with a vague allusion to “unintended consequences” he fears would arise from allowing those freedoms to high school students.

“The ability exists under the current protections and the current law for student journalists to do investigations, to learn the craft, to express their First Amendment abilities and there are a lot of avenues to do that,” a spokesperson for Ducey’s office later elaborated.

Yee, however, told Campus Reform that she was motivated to introduce the bill partly by her own experience of censorship as a student journalist, indicating that the veto has not deterred her from pursuing similar legislation in the future.

"While I am disappointed that SB 1384 did not become law this session, I will always stand with our student journalists in defense of their First Amendment rights. It was my honor to advocate on their behalf in 1992 as a censored student journalist and even more so today, 25 years later,” she stated. “I am thankful for the Arizona Senate's unanimous, bipartisan support for the bill and the House's overwhelming support. I am grateful for the many Arizonans and student journalists across the country who voiced their support along the way.”

Among those supporters was the Student Press Law Center, whose executive director, Frank LoMonte, was fiercely critical of Ducey’s veto.

“Someone needs to ask the governor, 'Do you really believe that students should be forbidden from criticizing their schools or advocating for a better quality education?'” LoMonte told the Republic. “That's what's the bill aims to protect and that's the kind of speech that schools have habitually censored.”

Campus Reform reached out to Governor Ducey’s office in regard to the veto, but received no comment on the action. Ducey has been in office since 2015, and is up for re-election this upcoming cycle.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @shannadnelson