N.D. governor signs law granting student journalists enhanced free-speech protections

NORTH DAKOTA — North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple signed into law Thursday rules to further protect the free-speech rights of high school and college journalists.

The law, which passed unanimously in both state Senate and House, received support because legislators understand their state “needs to take a stand for freedom of speech,” said Rep. Alex Looysen, who introduced the bill.

The new rules will prevent North Dakota’s public high schools and colleges from invoking the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier U.S. Supreme Court decision, which allows administrators to censor student publications not categorized as public forums.

Instead, schools will be required to follow the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court ruling, which prohibits administrators from limiting student speech unless it poses a substantial disruption to the operation of the school.

“The stars were aligned” to allow for the bill’s success, said Steve Listopad, an assistant professor and student media director at Valley City State University who has been a supporter of the bill. Also known as the John Wall New Voices Act, the legislation was named to honor a longtime journalism teacher and legislator who passed away last summer.

The bill gained momentum with support from Wall’s family and the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, Listopad said. It also gained traction as lawmakers began to view it as a practical application of the state’s high school civics test, a new standardized test students must pass to graduate, Listopad said.

Now, Looysen said representatives are considering legislation to address the free-speech rights of student journalists at private institutions — a proposal that was scrapped in the bill’s infancy.

North Dakota is the eighth state to pass legislation reinforcing students’ right to free speech, following Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon.

North Dakota’s legislation, modeled after California’s, is “one of the more comprehensive” laws, Looysen said. The law is only the third in the country, joining California and Kansas, that expressly protects teachers against retaliation for what their students publish.

Listopad said he hopes to “keep the conversation going,” and encourage other states to follow suit and to open the discussion on a federal level.

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 785-5451.