Freedom of speech is about to get a bit more free for students across the state.

As of Saturday, a new law — Senate Bill 764 —goes into effect in Maryland. The guidelines focus on freedom of expression in student journalism.

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Not everyone in the school system is totally onboard.

"We do think it's important that students have a journalism opportunity in high school," Carroll's Assistant Superintendent of Administration Jonathan O'Neil said.

But, they didn't support the original bill, he said.

Under new law, a student journalist will have the ability to exercise freedom of speech and freedom of the press in "school-sponsored media," which includes anything that is supported financially by the school system or produced in conjunction with a class the student journalist is enrolled in, according to meeting documents.

While this policy does give students rights of freedom of the press, there are some exceptions.

There can be intervention if material: is libelous or slanderous; constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; violates federal or state law; or incites students to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act, the violation of board and education policies or the material and substantial disruption of orderly operation of the school, according to the documents.

The board can also step in to limit media that is profane, vulgar, lewd, obscene or that has the intent to threaten, harass or intimate, according to the documents.

The original bill didn't have these provisions, O'Neil said.

But, while these exceptions exist, it is up to the board to have the burden of providing justification before taking action.

"We would not be able to impose any form of censorship ... except in some very very limited circumstances," he said. "If we felt like we had a right or a reason to intervene … we have the burden of proving that it's justified."

O'Neil is concerned that this could invite problems, or create unnecessary distractions. Typically, they didn't have issues with student publications, he said, but they'll have to see what happens under the new law.

The school system has three main types of student journalism publications, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Steven Johnson said.

These include high school newspapers and yearbooks, and morning news broadcasts, which span from elementary school to high school.

Items produced in journalism classes don't fall under this law — only items that are published and intended for distribution are protected, O'Neil said.

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Johnson, too, is a bit nervous heading into this era of student journalism.

"I'm going into this with great caution," he said.

What the student journalists publish should be educational, Johnson added, and not just a forum for rousing up "controversy."

As the former English supervisor, Johnson said he remembers principals calling and asking his opinion on what pieces could be published. In those days, they had the power to censor items if need be.

"That power seems to be gone," he said.

emily.chappell@carrollcountytimes.com

410-857-7862

twitter.com/EmilyChappell13

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