Bill aims to protect North Dakota student journalists’ freedom of speech

NORTH DAKOTA — Legislators in North Dakota introduced a bill Monday ensuring students’ freedom of expression in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media receives financial support from the school or college.

The John Wall New Voices Act, sponsored by Rep. Alex Looysen, a Republican, would protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists at public high schools and both public and private colleges, preventing administrators from invoking the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier precedent, said Steven Listopad, an assistant professor and student media director at Valley City State University, who helped spearhead the effort.

The 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision said student newspapers not designated as public forums have lesser First Amendment protections than other forms of student expression.

The bill would also require each school district to “adopt a written student freedom of expression policy.”

If passed, the bill would apply to the state’s 171 high schools and 21 colleges and universities, except for “any postsecondary educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization.”

The act’s first section aims to restore public high school student journalists their constitutional right to freedom of speech, as set by the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District ruling. Student media expression would not be restricted unless it is unlawful or directly violates others’ rights.

Listopad said there are “trends creeping around this country,” including Hazelwood and a 2007 appeals-court ruling, Hosty v. Carter, “that we want to keep out of our state. We look at this as preventative.”

Often, censorship of student newspapers is subtle, Listopad said, citing a case in 2009 where West Fargo High School administrators fired the student newspaper adviser, Jeremy Murphy, because they felt he wasn’t exercising enough control over the publication’s content.

“It was simply a matter of ‘we don’t like what your students are reporting, so we’re going to put somebody else in there who will give them the direction that we think that they need,’” Listopad said. “We don’t have protests and we don’t have lawsuits in this state. But we do have things like that.”

Although Murphy was later rehired, Listopad said he hopes the New Voices Act would keep the same indirect censorship out of other schools.

West Fargo High School administrators did not respond to telephone calls or an email seeking comment about the bill.

Seven other states — Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon — have already passed legislation similar to the New Voices Act, and an eighth, Illinois, has a comparable law only for college media.

The bill’s section protecting private college students’ First Amendment rights was largely inspired by California’s Leonard Law, Listopad said. Currently, California is the only state with a law requiring private high schools, colleges and universities to guarantee students the same freedom of speech rights promised to all U.S. citizens. But if the bill in North Dakota passes, LIstopad said it would be the nation’s most comprehensive student free speech law.

The bill was first conceptualized in 2013 as a class project for Listopad’s civic and citizen journalism class at the University of Jamestown, he said. The class spent the semester researching and putting together an early version of the bill.

At the end of the semester, the students pitched the bill to three North Dakota legislators, who agreed to support it, Listopad said. Since then, he’s continued to advocate and garner support.

The New Voices Act is named in memory of Rep. John Wall, a former high school journalism teacher and North Dakota legislator who died of cancer in 2014, Listopad said. The spirit of the bill honors Wall’s legacy.

“He believed in his students, and he produced a lot of great journalists over the years,” Listopad said. “While we didn’t get a chance to have a meaningful conversation with him about this before he passed away, his family believes in it 100 percent.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.