March 2014 podcast: North Dakota’s student journalism community pushes for an antidote to Hazelwood

North Dakota educators and students discuss their efforts to introduce and pass an “anti-Hazelwood” bill in the state. Guests include Jamestown University journalism professor Steve Listopad, adviser Jeremy Murphy, and Jamestown student journalists Dan Arens and Peter Odney.

Frank LoMonte: Hi and welcome to another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. I’m Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center and the SPLC is a non-profit advocate for the rights of student journalists. We provide information and educational resources online at SPLC.org. We hope you’ll check out all the resources there, including our archive of these podcasts. We’re here today to talk about the new Voices Act, the legislative proposal that’s being hatched in North Dakota. We haven’t had a state join the list of “anti-Hazelwood” states for many years, since Oregon enacted its student press rights legislation back in 2007. There have been several false starts and failed attempts in places like Kentucky and Connecticut over the years, but the new Voices Act in North Dakota might be the most promising candidate to add another state to the list of those protecting student expression by state statute. We have a series of guests here working in support of the Voices Act who have gotten us to the point of a piece of draft legislation that has the support of a lot of influential folks in the news media field in North Dakota. I’m going to let them talk about their efforts and why they think this issue is so important. Steve Listopad is a journalism professor with Jamestown University, he has three of his students with him, Masaki Ova, Peter Odney, Dan Arens, who worked on this as part of a project with Steve at Jamestown. And Jeremy Murphy, a high school journalism teacher in Fargo, who’s a veteran of some censorship controversy at the high school level and has been the head of the state scholastic press association there. We’re pleased to have all of you join us. And I’m just going to throw it to Steve Listopad first, I guess. And just start by telling us how this effort got started in North Dakota and why you think it is important.

Steve Listopad: Thanks, Frank. This is Steve. It started out as a conversation on our campus many years ago and it really took off last spring when I proposed to an advanced class that included Masaki, Peter and Dan, when I proposed projects to them to do for this Advanced Civic and Citizen Journalism class, and I was hoping that they would take this one. But I asked the class if they would work on doing a bill, writing a bill, researching a bill, in relation to this. Through the process, we had last spring, we had excellent conversation, we had excellent research, we were able to attract the attention of several legislators in our state. We met with them at the end of the semester, that was kind of the capstone experience for the class. And they liked the idea. This wasn’t, this isn’t necessarily coming out of a reaction from some horrible experience that we’ve had in North Dakota, it’s really recognizing the need in a classroom setting and our colleges and universities should innovate, they should take the time to work on the ideals of our profession and to develop the ideas of our profession. And so, this is not coming out of a horrible censorship situation. It’s something that’s coming out of reasonable people sitting around a room and saying what could we do to make the situation for student journalists and students in general better in the state of North Dakota.

Frank LoMonte: Well, let’s ask Jeremy Murphy to also kick in because he has experience dealing with student press rights issues at the high school level and has a good statewide perspective on this. Why is it of value to have a state statute that restores the balance that existed before the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision?

Jeremy Murphy: Yeah, thanks Frank. This is Jeremy. After advising newspaper, and yearbook and broadcast journalism, this is my eighth year now. I’ve really started to see the importance of advocating for a student-run and a student-led program, especially as the coordinator of the high school journalism association, you see the detriment that those types of prior review and administrative-led programs can have on student learning. And I think this is a great time for this type of legislation, especially when we’re moving to focus towards 21st century learning, and as we look at the common core in the state of North Dakota, there’s no better arena for 21st century learning than a journalism classroom that is student-centered and student-run. And, early in my career, I would look at those other advisers at national conventions and things and have conversations with them, from Tinker states, and I was almost envious of what they were able to accomplish and the amount of direction they were able to give their students and what their students were able to accomplish under that student leadership. And so, I think this movement is a great opportunity to see what North Dakota students have to offer and really put the leadership in their hands.

Frank LoMonte: And just to amplify on what Steve said, it is often a good time to propose and enact legislation protecting student press rights when there is not a four-alarm fire controversy going on in the state, but rather of peace. One of the things that we’ve seen is just having the confidence of knowing that the law is at your back, it just gives the students the encouragement to pursue substantive journalism knowing that they have got the benefit of some legal protection, even if they don’t turn out to necessarily need it. So, it just has a psychological effect that you can’t understate. Let me ask the students from Jamestown at this point, just you guys decide who wants to address this point first, but walk us through sort of the mechanics now of how this idea went from idea to actually a working document in which you’ve actually reached out to some legislators, you reached out to some people in the news media industry. How did you go about doing this and how did you get us to where we are today?

Masaki Ova: Well, first, this is Masaki, thank you for having me on here. We started out by gathering a list of people who we could get interested to try to gain interest in this piece of legislation. And then we started throwing out ideas of what we would want to accomplish with this legislation, like do we want to take it to, we’ve got high schools, we’ve got public colleges and private colleges, so we were coming up with a consensus on those type of ideas.

Frank LoMonte: And I think that’s important that the draft of the bill as you’re currently discussing and circulating it is quite comprehensive and it applies not just to students at the college, but to students at the K-12 level would also extend, as does the statute in California to students in private colleges to give them a degree of confidence and assurance as to their freedom to address issues of public concern and community concern. So it would be quite a comprehensive piece of legislation and would certainly put North Dakota in a position of national leadership. So you worked up these concepts, and I guess who have you been in touch with so far and what types of reactions are you getting as you float the idea?

Steve Listopad: I can step in here, Frank, this is Steve. During the semester, the students had very favorable reactions from Democratic leadership in North Dakota. Several Democratic legislators, three of them actually, met with us in Bismarck. From there, from that meeting, that was at the end of their semester last spring, and from there, we have been pursuing, and it took some time, we have been pursuing the North Dakota Newspaper Association’s support of this bill. And the students have only been peripherally involved in some of the activities after the class ended, but they provided all of the research and materials to move forward last spring. And it was just this spring, it was in January and February of this year, that the North Dakota Newspaper Association signed on board and then it was also shortly after that, and this is where we’re hoping to see the domino start to fall, shortly after the North Dakota Newspaper Association jumped on board, then the University of Jamestown, which is a private college, which is loosely affiliated with the Presbytery, a private college that’s our college, the president came out in support of this legislation, including the private college stipulation. And I think that’s what makes this, that’s one of the really neat things about this is that probably the organizations in the states, the private colleges, are probably the most far removed from any sort of First Amendment protections for students. We have one of them, a key one in the state that’s coming out in favor of it, first before anybody else. And it’s really interesting, the whole process that we went through a year ago, because not all of the students in the group agree on all of the parts of this bill. And we didn’t have a group think sort of mentality, we weren’t all cheerleaders championing every aspect of the bill, we ran this through the gauntlet, all these ideas through the gauntlet from every perspective before we took it anywhere. And I just want to introduce Dan Arens, who is one of the students who worked on the bill who was not in favor of the private school aspect of it. Do you want to say something, Dan?

Dan Arens: Sure, I can talk, and again I can’t fully address this piece because I haven’t been too much on board with the project since the class ended, I followed it loosely, but I haven’t been really involved. But, yeah I’m Dan Arens and I was part of the class and so I got on board with it and I liked the idea of obviously more freedom for students to engage in activities with the press, that we shouldn’t be held to a different standard. But I favored that within the context of, like with the First Amendment, with protection from government interference and control of our speech, and so my feeling would be that it wouldn’t apply to a private college so much because I view them more as a business and they have more rights to make their own decisions considering what and what not they will allow for student free speech, whereas a public high school or a public college, because of the First Amendment, should not be able to infringe those rights.

Frank LoMonte: Let me ask Peter to jump in at this point because surveying as a newspaper editor, you’re a person who’s in a position to sort of uniquely appreciate what benefit it might be to know that the law has your back as you’re publishing. So, how do you think the work of a student publication might be altered if the students knew that they had a state statute protecting their independence?

Peter Odney: Thanks, Frank. This is Peter. As an editor and as a member of the class, it’s always I won’t say harmful or detrimental, but it’s always a blow to the process when there’s any form of censorship, even minor reforms. It almost makes you sort of cautious in what stories you want to pursue. Because if you pursue something that’s controversial or inflammatory, you want to get to the root of it, you want to get to the truth. And if there’s no legislation to instill your confidence, then it’s extremely hard to pursue those stories.

Frank LoMonte: Well, the process right now stands you’ve got some very important and impressive endorsements lined up. Do you have an idea about next steps? Where would the process go from here? And I guess what is your feel for the political climate and political situation for actually getting your legislature to take action in North Dakota?

Steve Listopad: Hi Frank, this is Steve. Right now, we need to build the community around this legislation. And, we’re starting to do that, we started last spring and then it took us a while to get to the next step with a major supporter like the North Dakota Newspaper Association. Now we’ve got two major supporters online and we want to continue to build the community of professionals, of students, of faculty and organizations that feel that this is the right way to go. We want to, with the North Dakota Newspaper Association, behind us we want to make sure that we get to all of the other state media associations and organizations, the professionals, we want to be able to talk to the teachers’ unions and the Journalism Education Association and other similar types of associations in the state and yeah, community support. And all of that will lead to, for political success, and nobody is holding their breath that this will pass the first go-round. But, for political success, we need strong support form both Republican and Democratic legislators in our state. And as you, anybody can look at a political map of North Dakota has been read for a long time, and so it’s very important that we have support across the aisle on something like this.

Frank LoMonte: Sure, and as well all know the censorship of student speech does not know any partisan boundaries and it’s often the case that conservative political speech is the target of censorship just as liberal political speech or speech about liberal concerns or ideas can be, as well. So there really is no reason why a bill of that nature should boil down to a partisan disagreement at all. Let me ask, and starting with the students, but anybody else that wants to chime in, so let’s say a person is listening to this discussion today and they are in Kentucky or Connecticut or some other state where there might be some interest in igniting legislation of this kind, you now have sort of a go-by piece of legislation here and you had some experience on trying to navigate it through the process a little bit. Do you have any tips or suggestions or takeaways from your work on this process that might be informative to somebody else who wants to roll up their sleeves and try it in their own state?

Dan Arens: Well, this is Dan, again. And I guess one thing that was really important for me and again we kind of talked about it before when I talked about the private college and my concern on that, one thing that I liked about our process was that division. We addressed all three levels, we addressed public colleges, we addressed private colleges and we addressed high schools. And we also separated them within the bill, so it has three parts, and that way each part can be modified individually, depending on what needs have to occur for it to pass, for negotiating it with both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature. So I would say a really important piece of advice is to do that to really kind of compartmentalize the process and you have these different sections so that maybe your state, if you’re in a more conservative state that is less likely to pass private colleges or even high schools, but it would be favorable towards public colleges, you could have different criteria. You could have absolute free press for public colleges, but then you could modify and negotiate the other two, so that you could still get something passed at least part way, while not stalling the whole process because of a disagreement over just one segment of it.

Masaki Ova: This is Masaki here and I think it’s also important to do your research, look at the other states, look at what they passed and you can modify your bill on that. And then when you’re contacting people I think it’s also important to do your research there too and to look at their backgrounds on what type of occupation they do and get the right support from the right person that would back up this type of bill.

Frank LoMonte: I’m also going to ask you, Masaki, you’ve got a really interesting perspective to speak from because you’ve been an editor of a college newspaper but now you’re actually out of school and working in the field, working in the profession. Using that vantage point as somebody working in a professional newsroom environment, can you address a little bit why you think that it’s important that students get that training and educational experience in a newsroom that has freedom of the press?

Masaki Ova: I think it’s important because as a journalist and working in both fields that you need to be able to make decisions, responsible decisions, on your own. You need to be able to do the, I mean, look at the content and decide, does this piece need to be in there? Is it just glorifying this article and do that type of stuff? And it’s also kind of like, as a professional, looking at it, what if the mayors of every city in the United States just said well we want to see what you’re writing about? Our city council meetings, it would just be, there would just be no justice involved in it and there would be no watchdog status to monitor these governments and stuff. And that’s how it would be like in the school when you report on their school board meetings or your college’s board of trustees type meetings. I mean, what if they just said, we want to see your stuff, too. We want to make sure that you’re writing the way we want you to write. It just would not be a good learning experience for a journalist who’s trying to work up into the professional field because they have to make those type of decisions.

Frank LoMonte: Let me ask Jeremy Murphy just to jump in because Masaki just said the magic word watchdog, right, is often times exactly what administrators, school board members, even some legislators are fearful of, that they’re going to embolden and empower students to be complaining about the education they’re receiving, maybe talking about subjects that are uncomfortable to be heard. How do we get people over that, I guess? How do we get people comfortable enough, trusting students with the power of the pen, so that they’ll relinquish a degree of their legal control over what the students want to publish?

Jeremy Murphy: Well, I think showing the successes that students have had operating under that type of program that provides them that opportunity to be student leaders and to pursue stories to the fullest of their abilities and not having to worry about specific administrators or any type of censorship. For example, this year, I had students submit open records requests and pursue stories that were not necessarily comfortable and had sensitive issues covered, and they were the same types of issues that were covered a few years ago when I was removed from being an adviser. But, it was just because of the different support from administrators, by administrators, were different now from years ago and as an adviser, that can be nerve-wracking, worrying about the support of your administrators. And this legislation would provide that kind of black and white policy to point to and give students the courage and advisers the courage to let them pursue those stories and those topics and be that kind of watchdog that we hope that they would continue to be even after they leave our program.

Frank LoMonte: Great, well I’m just going to let Steve wrap us up real quickly by, Steve isn’t there a Facebook group where people can monitor progress on this and indicate their support and maybe kick in their contributions too? So, if you’ll take us out by giving folks some information about how they can find out more.

Steve Listopad: Sure, the Facebook group is The Student Media of North Dakota and the class started this group last spring and so that’s the driving force of this Facebook group right now is the New Voices Act. However, we don’t want the group just to be about the bill and we want to connect all of the student media communities in North Dakota through this Facebook group. But, look up The Student Media of North Dakota on Facebook and you’ll be able to see updates on our progress in North Dakota and I’m positive that the dominos are going to start to fall and progress is going to be coming fast and furious over the next few months.

Frank LoMonte: Well, fantastic. We will look forward to updates on that progress and I’d like to say a warm thank you to Steve Listopad for being the driving force and leader behind this effort. Jeremy Murphy, Masaki Ova, Peter Odney and Dan Arens for joining us today on the discussion. Thanks so much for your efforts and support of press freedom in North Dakota. For anyone who’s interested in this issue, we hope you’ll also check out the State Legislation page at SPLC.org and keep us posted on your own efforts to defend a free press in your own state. We hope you’ll connect with the Student Press Law Center on Twitter @SPLC, find us on Facebook and use our hotline SPLC@splc.org if you’ve got any questions about your rights. Thanks for listening.