State Bill Aims to Protect Student Journalists

By Lichen Forster

How do you define censorship? What are the limits of the free press—are there any? What about student journalists? Should high schoolers and college students operate under the same rules—and protections—as the pros?

According to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a Supreme Court decision from 1988, the answer to that last question is… not exactly.

image of Ke Kalahea Editor in Chief Lichen ForsterKe Kalahea Editor-in-Chief Lichen Forster on air in the University Radio Hilo for their radio talk show, KK, We Gotchu. “Right now, the language of Hazelwood says that an administrator can censor student journalists if they have legitimate pedagogical concerns, and that is so vague,” said Cindy Reves in an interview with KK, We Gotchu, the University Radio Show hosted by this author. Reves is the Hawaiʻi Director for the Journalism Education Association, president of the Hawaiʻi Scholastic Journalism Association, and English and media teacher at McKinley High School, where she advises the student newspaper The Pinion.

“I'm going to read some of the language, for example, ‘if it’s poorly written, if it's inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.” Reves said.

Soon after Hazelwood passed, advocates worried about it being misunderstood began working to pass Student Press Protection laws in their states. Thirty-four years later, 15 states have succeeded. The John Wall New Voices Act, passed by North Dakota in 2015, represents the type of legislation being passed today.

“Those bills are really, really simple,” said Hillary Davis, the Advocacy and Organizing Director for the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.. The SPLC offers free information, training, and legal assistance to student journalists and their educators across the country.

“They make it very, very clear when a student journalist can be censored and those are very specific circumstances dealing with privacy, libel, slander: the kind of stuff that the journalists aren’t printing anyway if they’re following ethics and media law. The bills also protect advisers who refuse to censor their students.”

Hawaiʻi is one of several states pursuing one of these bills. A form of the current Hawaiʻi Student Journalism Protection Bill (HB1848 in the House, SB214 in the Senate), was first introduced in 2019. It didn’t get a hearing, then died. In 2020, it made it through the House and was assigned to three Senate committees. It passed the first two, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“And so in its third and last committee, the chair of that committee just said he still had some questions about the bill.” Reves said. “And in normal times, he would have worked to get those questions answered. But these were not normal times. And so the bill died.”

Hawaiʻi operates on a two-year legislative cycle, so this year, Speaker Scott Saiki introduced the bill again. On March 8, the bill passed the House floor unanimously, and was then assigned to the Senate. It now lies in wait until committees are assigned and Reves and her colleagues can contact the chair of that committee to schedule a hearing. After passing committees (according to Reves, there will likely be two) it will go to the Senate floor for final voting.

Hawaiʻi’s issues with getting the bill passed have been primarily logistical ones, but other states have faced opposition from their public.

Image of Alannah Shinde, Associate Editor of Ke Kalahea

“Opposition…generally comes from the school administrators who have had a lot of control over what's been in the student media,” Davis said. “They’ve had that control for a long time and very often have felt like they're protecting students from controversy.”

Davis said this sometimes stems from administration stereotyping what student journalists will want to talk about.

“Mostly, I think what they're looking for is things that are going to offend or upset parents and other adults in the community or outside of the community,” Davis said. “Students shouldn't be self censoring critical stories because they’re afraid of what adults are going to say. If anything, they should be learning how to grapple with some of these issues honestly, and openly and truthfully.”

According to Davis, self-censorship can look like a number of things. Mainly, it’s backing off from stories that seem to have too much pressure or would require difficult conversations, or even covering the lighter sides of stories, for example, talking about dorm safety instead of doing investigative work into sexual assault on campus.

“Right now, we tell students, you’re not allowed to grapple with these things: until you're suddenly ready when you’re out in the world on your own,” Davis said. “I think that does a great disservice to not just student journalists, but to all students, right? There are issues that are happening on campus that everybody talks about, but they do it on social media, and they do it where all there is rumor and conjecture, and there’s no facts. There’s no ethics, there’s no opportunity to talk with the administration.”

The Hawaiʻi Student Journalism Protection Bill has received support from local organizations such as the Hawaiʻi State Teachers Association, the Big Island Press Club, and the Hawaiʻi Publishers Association.

“Any citizen of Hawaiʻi can submit testimony, and it’s a very easy process to submit written testimony,” Reves said. “I really hope that college students who are journalists will testify. I also hope that college students who just read their student newspaper will testify — don't you want your student newspaper, whether you write for it or not, to be able to speak the truth and to talk about things that matter to you?”

Image of Cindy Reves, advocate of the Hawaiʻi Student Journalism Protection BillCindy Reves testifies before the state Senate on March 23rd. She has been an active advocate of the Hawaiʻi Student Journalism Protection Bill since it was introduced in 2019.

“Any student who is interested in being involved should contact myself or Cindy Reves, and we'll help you however you need,” Davis said. “I'm happy to look over any email, any testimony, get on Zoom to help you walk you through it. Whatever you need, I'm here to help.”

Cindy Reves at
Hillary Davis at

Editor’s Note: Lichen Forster is a graduate of the Hawaiʻi public school system and a former high school journalist. They have a vested interest in the Hawaiʻi Student Journalism Protection Bill due to their student journalism experience at the high school level and, now, at the collegiate level. In the text that follows, Forster offers a factual account of pending legislation pertaining to student journalism. However, in full transparency, Forster has testified in favor of the legislation and spoken in favor of it in other news outlets in their role as a student journalism leader.