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North Dakota Adopts New Law to Protect Student Journalists

FIRE is excited to announce that North Dakota has joined eight other states in protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists at public universities. The John Wall New Voices of North Dakota Act (HB 1471) was passed by the North Dakota House on April 5 and signed into law by Governor Jack Dalrymple on April 9.

As FIRE previously explained, this bill was created to address the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), in which the Court severely limited public high school students’ First Amendment rights by allowing schools to control the content of student newspapers “so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” While college student journalists should be exempt from the Hazelwood decision because, as adults, they have broader free speech rights than high school students, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit applied the holding in Hazelwood to college journalists in Hosty v. Carter (2005).

HB 1471 will ensure that student journalists in North Dakota’s public institutions of higher education, as well as those enrolled in the state’s public K–12 schools, will not be subjected to unwarranted censorship. The new law states:

[A] student journalist has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the institution or by use of facilities of the institution or produced in conjunction with a class in which the student is enrolled. Subject to subsection 3, a student journalist is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of school-sponsored media. This subsection may not be construed to prevent a student media adviser from teaching professional standards of English and journalism to student journalists.

The new law sensibly allows for limited restrictions on speech by a student journalist only when the expression:

a. Is libelous or slanderous;

b. Constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy;

c. Violates federal or state law; or

d. So incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act, the violation of institution or state board of higher education policies, or the material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the institution.

These exemptions make sense because speech that fits any of those narrowly defined categories would most likely not be protected by the First Amendment.

Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon have similar laws protecting students’ free speech. Illinois has a similar legislation that applies only to college students.

FIRE is pleased to see North Dakota statutorily ensure speech protections for student journalists, and we hope to see more states follow North Dakota’s example.

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