A group of students and staff at the University of Jamestown (UJ) in North Dakota are pushing for legislation that would protect student journalists. Though the text of the bill has not yet been finalized, its advocates intend the “New Voices Act” to be a comprehensive law that would protect the expression of students in high school and public and private colleges.
The Supreme Court established in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) that public grade school students enjoy broad First Amendment rights. Since then, however, court decisions have limited the scope of those rights. For example, in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Supreme Court ruled that public high schools may exercise control over the content of newspapers produced as part of a journalism curriculum. In Hosty v. Carter (2005), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit applied Hazelwood to university student journalists, further endangering student speech.
The push for the New Voices Act comes from a group of students in UJ’s “Civic and Citizen Journalism” class and has garnered support from UJ’s president, Bob Badal. Proponents of the Act argue that it benefits both students and their communities for student journalists to have the same opportunities as members of the independent press do:
“I am personally committed … to the principles behind the New Voices Act, because we aren’t going to train journalists if we aren’t serious about it, and we want them to have the same freedom that we would expect them to have in the real world,” Badal said.
Jeremy Murphy, coordinator of the Northern Interscholastic Press Association, further explained why an unimpeded student press is important:
“My students, their mission is to educate and inform and entertain … they feel that they’re providing the community a service and shedding light on issues that exist,” Murphy said. “If somebody wants to censor that, they are doing a disservice, they are turning a blind eye to those issues — and they’re not going away.
“So it’s important to teach students the responsible, ethical way to go about that conversation, and you can’t teach students how to do that without doing it,” he said.
“This isn’t just giving students a podium to spout whatever they want,” Murphy said. “It’s helping them become better leaders for tomorrow, for our future and communities. It’s not about right now; it’s about tomorrow and the years to come.”
As I wrote here on The Torch in February, Iowa Assistant Attorney General Tyler Buller wrote an excellent article for the Maine Law Review (PDF) last fall that highlighted some of the breaking news stories that student journalists have brought to light and the invaluable skills student journalists are able to learn through their work.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that if the law is passed, North Dakota would have “one of the strongest and best laws protecting student expressions.” California is the only state with statutory speech protections for students at private institutions of higher education—the Leonard Law prohibits private nonsectarian colleges and universities in the state from disciplining students for speech that would be protected under the First Amendment at a public school or off campus. Only nine states have enacted either statutes or education code rules that counter Hazelwood, providing legal protection for student journalists. The New Voices Act would be a powerful, broad move to ensure that student journalists in North Dakota are not punished for being zealous investigators and candid writers.
FIRE will keep an eye out for updates. In the meantime, check out the Student Media of North Dakota’s Facebook page for more information about the legislation and its supporters.