‘New Voices’ legislation advances in Nebraska and Arkansas

March 1, 2019

FIRE is encouraged that Nebraska’s LB 206, a bill we wrote about in January, unanimously passed the Judiciary Committee in the Cornhusker State a few weeks ago. A similar bill pending in Arkansas unanimously passed the House of Representatives and cleared the Arkansas Senate Education Committee yesterday, paving the way for a vote from the Senate before heading to the governor’s desk for his signature.

The bills, modeled after the Student Press Law Center’s “New Voices Act,” would protect student journalists at public institutions of higher education from prior review and censorship by school administrators. The Nebraska bill would extend similar protections for students at public high schools as well.

For example, the bill pending in Nebraska affirms that “each student journalist is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, sports, and advertising content such student produces for school-sponsored media.” Furthermore, it declares “school-sponsored” media as a public forum. Statutorily, student journalists would be guaranteed their independence from administrative control. The significance of this allows students the freedom to explore, write, and investigate without fear of retribution or outright censorship.

This legislation is needed to ensure that students journalists’ rights are not trampled by campus administrators. Both the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and the 2005 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Hosty v. Carter threaten student journalists’ rights as they aim to do the important — and often overlooked — work of campus reporting.

The New Voices Act has enjoyed success for several years. Similar legislation has passed in 14 other states, and according to the SPLC, eleven states introduced versions of the bill this year. Recently, Washington, Nevada, North Dakota, Maryland, and Vermont have passed versions of the New Voices Act with bipartisan majorities, demonstrating an ever-growing consensus for the need to legislatively protect student journalists.

The SPLC, joined by the Freedom Forum Institute and the Newseum, have called 2019 the “Year of the Student Journalist.”

Nebraska, as the sole unicameral legislature in the nation, is in a good position to expeditiously codify LB 206. For Arkansas’s part, we are hopeful that the Senate can follow their House colleagues and advance the bill. We urge legislators in both states to do just that and send their respective bills to governors Rickett’s and Hutchinson’s desks.