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Drew Sharek, left, and Chase Howell, both seniors and student journalists, pack up after a CU News Corps class at the University of Colorado Boulder on Jan. 21, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado lawmakers this year hope to broaden First Amendment protections for the state’s student journalists by passing legislation shielding public school employees who work with them from administrative retaliation.

The bill would also broaden explicit free speech protections for student journalists to include audio and visual storytelling platforms.

“This bill will update our law in Colorado and get it into the 21st century,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former journalist who is leading the push for change.

“The First Amendment applies to all of us,” she added. “This bill is really just a good reminder for everyone about what this law says and why it’s important.”

In addition to traditional free speech protections offered by the U.S. Constitution, Colorado is one of 14 states that provide additional, explicit protections of freedom of expression for student journalists. McLachlan, who previously served on the board of Colorado’s high school press association, says this bill will reinforce the state law.

The current law includes protections focused on print journalism. The bill would bring broadcast and online publications under that umbrella. The measure would also prevent a public school employee who advises student journalists from being fired, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred or “otherwise retaliated against.”

House Bill 1062, also being led by Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is scheduled for its first hearing Feb. 6 in the House Education Committee.

Students crowd the new CU News Corps classroom in the CASE Center on the University of Colorado to hear Water Desk Director Mitch Tobin, right, discuss the state of the Colorado River on Jan. 21, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Keyauna Caro, co-editor of The Mirror, the University of Northern Colorado’s student newspaper, says it’s critical for students to have a platform to express themselves.

“I think a lot of student journalists get penalized for saying things that don’t actually go along with the majority, especially at predominantly white schools,” she said. “A lot of minorities have a lot to say, and sometimes they get penalized for speaking out against the injustices they face. And that’s where this law is really important.”

Student media outlets, and those who are affiliated with them, have continuously found themselves in the public spotlight when journalists wade into controversial territory.

And that’s where the law would come in.

In 2016, the student newspaper at Palmer Ridge’s High School in Monument, The Bear Truth, published an editorial endorsing Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, eliciting a strong reaction from the community.

“And it wasn’t a candidate that El Paso County was in favor of, let’s just say that,” said Jack Kennedy, executive director of the Colorado Student Media Association.

The response was swift: The newspaper and the school received heated emails from parents and significant backlash on social media. Some parents demanded the newspaper’s adviser, Tom Patrick, be fired. In response, the school emailed parents saying that the student publication does not represent the opinion of the school and that the students and the adviser had followed school policy.

Kennedy said in an interview with The Sun that there is “implicit support” within the current law for advisers working with student journalists, but the additions to the law would make it crystal clear.

“The advisers are employees and they are members of the school faculty almost always, but they’re also advocates for students and they are their journalism coaches, if you will. So they’re sort of caught in between,” said Kennedy, who worked as a high school journalism and English teacher for 30 years before retiring in 2010. 

“… It’d be very difficult to find a publication advisor who hasn’t felt this,” he said.

Another example dates to 2007, when a group of student journalists at the Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University’s student newspaper, published a controversial editorial that included only four words: “Taser this …(EXPLETIVE) BUSH.”

“Everybody on the CSU campus knows where they were when that happened,” said Jake Sherlock, student media adviser for CSU’s various student-led media endeavors. “There was a lot of backlash.”

The editorial –– which referenced an incident where a University of Florida student was tasered while attending a forum featuring then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry –– propelled CSU and Colorado into a national debate about student free expression and university control over student media.

Sherlock says that he doesn’t expect the proposed update to the Colorado Student Free Expression Law to have a huge impact on the student-media landscape, but it could be proactive in protecting new and emerging types of storytelling, such as virtual reality.

“I guess if this bill protects us from administrators who want to overstep their bounds, so that we can continue to keep putting forth quality graduates and fun journalism experiments that can help the industry stay strong, I think that’s great,” Sherlock said.

Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat who brought a bill last year to study media literacy in schools, says that reinforcing the state’s student free expression law, adopted in 1990, will help encourage young journalists to be independent thinkers and to not be afraid to tackle difficult topics.

“It’s just critical,” Cutter said. “The press is so important to democracy and to our understanding of the world, and for making opinions about our world that are based on facts. When you try to define that too tightly, it’s really dangerous.”

If signed into law, House Bill 1062 would go into effect on Aug. 5.

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15