Kansas Student Publications Act celebrates 25 years at annual student journalism conference

The 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case that high school journalism students’ rights weren’t violated if their articles were censored came as a blow to student press freedoms, Susan Massy told an estimated 800 students and their advisers on Monday during the opening session of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association conference in Topeka.

 

“I saw my students do more self-censorship in fear of what might happen,” said Massy, who remains an adviser at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School in metropolitan Kansas City, recalling the atmosphere that surrounded student journalism nearly 30 years ago. “I have never felt so defeated.”

Massy said she and her fellow journalism teachers across the state then went to work to try to secure freedoms for Kansas high school students at a time when student-written stories were getting censored.

“Especially articles that were critical of administrators,” she said.

Despite the Hazelwood case, the hard work and unwavering dedication of many high school teachers, university professors and some Kansas lawmakers paid off with the creation of the 1992 Kansas Student Publications Act. The law, signed by former Gov. Joan Finney, has been securing the rights of high school journalists to not be censored and to be able to publish political or controversial articles in their school newspapers across the state for the past 25 years.

“This legislation protects you, the student journalists of Kansas,” said Eric Thomas, KSPA’s executive director, to the crowd that represented more than 70 schools during the 25th anniversary celebration of the law.

Ron Johnson, a journalism professor at Kansas State University, said the Hazelwood case made the road to getting the Kansas Student Publications Act enacted bumpy at times.

“That atmosphere of intimidation made it tough for folks to stand up and tell their story,” he said. But many students and advisers did make the trek to Topeka to the state capitol and testified in favor of the bill that was eventually passed with the help of former Sen. Lana Oleen, R-Manhattan, and Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“The timing was right, the conversations were good,” Oleen, a former journalism adviser, said. “It was a bill that needed tending and it was a bill that needed passage and it got done.”

The sentiments about the legislation were mixed among lawmakers, including former governors Mike Hayden and Joan Finney. It also died several times in committee, but Oleen said the bill had “good bipartisan support” and eventually passed the Senate on a 37 to 2 vote while the House vote was 79 to 42.

“It took an alignment of stars over Kansas,” said John Hudnall, a former KSPA executive director. “It took the strength of advisers who were unwilling to accept defeat.”

Scott Roberts, now the principal at Blue Valley Southwest High School, was a student in Massy’s journalism class in the late 1980s while at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School. He said as an administrator, he understands the power and responsibilities of student journalists.

“What’s not a press if we don’t have opposing sides? That’s why we have a press,” Roberts said. “This law takes maintenance to be a reality for the state of Kansas.”

The freedom of Kansas high school journalism students currently was driven home when the conference attendees heard from four of the “Pittburg 6,” the Pittsburg High School students who wrote several stories that questioned the education credentials of Amy Robertson, who had been hired by the Pittsburg Unified School District 250 board of education in March. The board ultimately accepted Robertson’s resignation earlier this year after a series of stories in the high school’s Booster Redux.

Connor Balthazor, now a Pittsburg High senior, recalled sharing their findings of Robertson with Destry Brown, the district’s superintendent.

“He was hoping we would write a nice story” about Robertson, he said. “Three times he assured us there was nothing to see. Three times he was wrong.”

Balthazor said if the Kansas Student Publications Act didn’t exist, their material would have been censored and “the community would have never known” about Robertson’s fraudulent educational credentials.

“Sometimes the best stories are the ones that start off uncomfortably,” added Gina Mathew, another Pittsburg High senior. “If you pursue the truth, you cannot go wrong. The power of student journalism is active in schools all across the state.”

Frank LoMonte, the former executive director of Student Press Law Center, urged the students and their advisers to “use the power” of the Kansas Student Publications Act to protect them.

“This law says to teachers ‘we’ve got your back,’ ” he said. “It’s only as good as the journalism you write. Speak up and speak out if your rights are being violated.”

Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or on Twitter @AngelaDeines.

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