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New bipartisan bill could offer added protections to student journalists

Assembly Bill 551 would create guidelines that mirror the same ones that are used in traditional media outlets.
Wisconsin State Capitol
Posted at 12:14 PM, Dec 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-06 13:14:17-05

MADISON — Wisconsin state legislators are looking at a new bipartisan led bill that could offer added protections to student journalists.

“That’s the pressure you feel as an advisor and as a student if you don’t have very clear and laid out rules,” said Matthew Smith, President, Wisconsin Journalism Education Association.

Right now, public colleges and schools have control over what their students publish.

Assembly Bill 551 would create guidelines that mirror the same ones that are used in traditional media outlets.

For teachers like Matthew Smith, the protection would be a game-changer.

“The students will then be able to decide how to use their own voice, as long as they’re not breaking these laws and causing actual harm to their school and disrupting their school,” said Smith.

If it passes, the bill will address four key issues.

Students at public institutions will have “the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media.”

The bill will also let student journalists determine what they cover and prohibit school officials from limiting what they can cover.

The law would also prevent student journalists and their advisors from being disciplined for acting in accordance with the bill by administration.

Lastly, the move would require school districts, the UW System and technical colleges to adopt a "freedom of speech" policy and set up an appeal process for students, if it is needed.

Smith says these changes would offer a clear line to follow and avoid what typically takes place at schools across the state.

“They’ll have wording about restricting a whole bunch of stuff but they don’t actually enforce it. And so, a decade later, they decide, ‘Oh, we’re going to look at the rules and decide that now, we’re going to start censoring you when we didn’t before,’ and now, the students get blindsided,” said Smith.

The bill is still in the debate phase and is expected to continue that way until after the new year.