New law introduced to reinforce protections for student media

Illustration: April Kinney · The Sentry Student publications may have more protections.

Illustration: April Kinney · The Sentry
Student publications may have more protections.
Expanded first amendment protections for faculty advisors, multimedia productions 

In the era of fake news and increasing political polarization, student media organizations have struggled to stay transparent while maintaining a positive relationship with their institutions. A new amendment to an existing Colorado law would expand First Amendment protections for student media groups by protecting their faculty advisors from administrative backlash.   

While the First Amendment of the US constitution gives free speech protections to both citizens and the press, Colorado is one of only 14 states that deliberately also protects the free speech of students. Colorado previously enacted the student freedom of expression law in 1990, barring any pressure for censorship from the institution. The recent amendment to the bill, introduced by Rep. Barbara McLachlan and Sen. Dan Coram, includes faculty advisors in protection from censorship, and further defines student publications as being in “written, broadcast, or online format,” thus expanding protections to student media outside of print, like broadcasting or podcasts.  

According to the Student Press Law Center, the landmark Supreme Court Case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 393 U.S. 503 in 1969 set the national precedent for student media freedom from censorship. The case, summarized by the Student Press Law Center, states that “Student expression is constitutionally protected and may not be censored…unless school officials can show that the expression: (1) Would result in a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities or (2) Invades the rights of others.” As a result, content published by a student-run media organization at a public institution cannot be censored on the sole basis of being controversial.  

Despite the fact that student-driven content cannot legally be censored, loopholes in the law allow for administrative retaliation and financial gatekeeping, both of which particularly impact faculty supervisors of student media groups. In a 2016 survey of advisors associated with the College Media Association, more than twenty media advisors reported facing “administrative pressure to edit, control or censor student journalistic content.”   

Like many student organizations, student media is often guided by a faculty advisor, who teaches students while also maintaining a relationship with the university at large. Steve Haigh, the Director of Student Media at Metropolitan State University of Denver, believes the role of an advisor is a complex blend of mentorship, teaching and administrative work.  

“I think that as an advisor, your job really is to be a critic, but also to lift people up,” said Haigh. “And it’s always to treat people like human beings, as well as to hold them accountable.” 

Colorado House Bill 1062 would reinforce First Amendment protections for both student journalists and their respective advisors. In Colorado, several cases of administrative backlash against student content led to questions about the existing policy. For example, a politically heated and controversial editorial regarding former president George W. Bush published in the Colorado State University Collegian led to intense adverse reactions from both parents and faculty members.  

The existing law indicates that the content from student media organizations cannot be interpreted as a statement from institutional powers, and that student content is representative of a public student forum. If passed, the amendment would take effect in fall of 2020.  

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