N.D. House approves student free expression bill 92-0

NORTH DAKOTA — The North Dakota House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill Friday intended to protect the free-speech rights of student journalists.

The bill, which Rep. Alex Looysen, a Republican, introduced on Jan. 19, would enhance students’ freedom of expression in school-sponsored media, preventing schools from citing the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier precedent. The bill would protect students in both public K-12 schools and colleges.

The measure passed 92-0, with two members abstaining, and now must go to the state Senate.

Steve Listopad, an assistant professor and student media director at Valley City State University, who has pushed for the legislation, said he did not expect a unanimous vote because there’s always someone who “can’t in their good conscience vote for it.”

“But everybody must have come to the conclusion that whatever claims there were out there against us were trumped by the merit of this bill,” Listopad said. “That’s just incredible.”

The bill would allow student journalists to report on controversial issues without fear of censorship, Listopad said, adding that “we can’t teach journalism without using as much of the First Amendment as possible.”

Although a House committee amended the legislation Tuesday to exclude private schools and universities from the legislation, Listopad said he hopes to create rules in the future that would protect the First Amendment rights of all students in North Dakota.

In the Hazelwood case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators could censor student newspapers that were not designated as public forums.

The bill would ensure students are given enhanced rights under the Tinker standard created by the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Under the Tinker standard, students cannot be punished for speech unless it causes a substantial disruption to the operation of the school.

Listopad said the Senate is expected to consider the bill next week.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.