3 minute read

Raising Our Voices

Student-led, grassroots movement called New Voices works towards better press rights for student journalists and their advisers

Ever since the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, student journalists have been fighting censorship from their schools, administrators and school districts. The Hazelwood decision greatly diminished free speech and free press rights for student journalists, as it stated that schools were not required under the First Amendment to allow certain types of student speech, including speech that was “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.”

As a result, student journalists have very little protections from school censorship. From Vermont students censored due to writing investigative pieces on a school employee facing unprofessional conduct charges to Harsonville High School’s censored story on the resignation of the school district’s superintendent, the conflict between prior restraint and free press in schools has affected student journalists around the country.

To combat this, certain legislation has been passed in some states in order to protect free speech and give students ammunition in their fight for rights, most notably: The New Voices Act.

“Students are people too. Students should have rights under the constitution...but unfortunately when we look at the last 30 years after the Hazelwood case, we see some major issues,” New Voices lobbyist Steve Listopad said. “We are teaching something called journalism, but when the principal or superintendent or school board can say ‘No, you don’t get to report that story,’ that’s not really journalism.”

The New Voices Act, legislation protecting student journalists, has passed in 14 states and currently being introduced in many more. It is designed in three parts: restoration, protection and expansion.

First, the act looks to restore the standard of expression set in the Tinker vs. Des Moines court case (1969), which upholds the idea that student speech should be protected unless it is libelous or dangerous, specifically in public high schools. Second, it aims to protect college student journalists from abuse by school administration in the interpretation of the Hazelwood case. Finally, it hopes to extend these rights to private education institutions.

“The last couple of years we’ve had this conversation about fake news and propaganda….and I think we are having it because we’ve taught to students for so long the wrong idea of journalism– we’ve taught them to take no for an answer. We’ve taught them that when the adults say ‘no, that’s the end of the conversation,” and we’ve created this ugly thing in the process,” Listopad said.

The New Voices legislation was named after the John Wall New Voices Act of North Dakota, which passed unanimously in 2013 in North Dakota’s state legislature, and stated that “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.” It also protected journalism advisers from administrative punishment based on their publication, stating that “a student media adviser may not be dismissed, suspended or disciplined for acting to protect a student journalist engaged in a protected activity.”

Listopad has been involved in the push for the New Voices Act since its adoption in North Dakota; his students actually wrote the bill. As a student media adviser at the North Dakota University of Jamestown, he witnessed a circuit court decision that expanded the Hazelwood decision to colleges, thus extending the rights of college administrators to control school press. His and his students’ response was out of fear for the destruction of their rights.

“I had to tell my students in my program that they pretty much had no freedom of the press rights,” Listopad said. “So, I started working with my students, and they were extremely interested in the Tinker case, the Hazelwood case and the California Leonard law, and they acted.”

Today there are campaigns in Texas, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey and seven other states, spearheaded by the Student Press Law Center and journalism students throughout each state. Story by Rebecca Schneid

We are teaching something called journalism, but when the principal or superintendent or school board can say 'No, you don't get to report that story,' that's not really journalism.

Mapping Progress

14 U.S. states adopt New Voices legislation