Wisconsin Assembly lawmakers unanimously voted Tuesday to approve Republican-led legislation to guarantee certain rights and protections for K-12 and higher education student journalists.
The legislation, introduced on Oct. 23, would codify speech rights and protections for student journalists as well as create an appeals and review process for students to challenge editorial decisions from school-sponsored media at public K-12 schools, University of Wisconsin System schools and technical colleges.
“We must vote in this Legislature to assure that our kids, our scholars are able to be involved in the newsroom, to gain the writing skills and strategies we need at this moment in the history of Wisconsin,” said Rep. Sheila Stubbs, D-Madison.
The bill defines school-sponsored media as “any material that is prepared, substantially written, published or broadcast” by student journalists “at a school, under the direction of a media adviser and distributed or generally made available to students enrolled in the school,” with the exception of material intended to be used solely for a course offered by the school.
The bill would not protect speech considered libelous, obscene, an unwarranted invasion of privacy in violation of state or federal law, or inciting a violation of the law or lawful school policy.
Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, told The Daily Cardinal in October the bill does not specify what the appeals process must look like, meaning the Board of Regents is able to create its own policy as long as it complies with the bill.
Howard Schweber, a formal UW-Madison political science professor, previously told the Cardinal the bill’s language is ambiguous and does not clearly determine the freedoms of student newspapers but “appears to require that schools allow students to make [First Amendment] judgments themselves.”
Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, endorsed the bill for its ability to prevent circumstances where student newspapers censor certain articles. He brought up UW-Madison student Tripp Grebe, was fired from The Badger Herald for writing an article with a negative stance on defunding the police.
“This is the kind of thing that can go on campuses. And we're trying to protect students with diverse opinions on our college campuses. And this is a good bill to help protect that,” Murphy said.
However, Emerson mentioned this example would not apply to the bill because the final decision on publication is up to the students.
“I [would] like to make it clear that what this bill does is leave a final decision in the hands of students. Tripp Grebe's situation would not have changed had this bill been in place because it was the student newspaper that decided not to post and publish the article.”
The Senate has not yet taken up the proposal. It is unclear whether or not Gov. Tony Evers will sign the bill.
Ava Menkes is the state news editor at The Daily Cardinal. She has covered multiple stories about Wisconsin politics and written in-depth about nurses unions and youth voter turnout. Follow her on Twitter at @AvaMenkes.