N.D. House approves ‘anti-Hazelwood’ student press freedom bill

NORTH DAKOTA — The North Dakota House of Representatives approved legislation on Monday that would protect the free-speech rights of student journalists at public schools and colleges — sending the bill to the governor’s desk for a signature.

Steve Listopad, an assistant professor and student media director at Valley City State University, who has pushed for the legislation, said he’s not concerned the governor will veto the bill.

The legislation, which the Senate approved unanimously in March after making several amendments, would prevent schools and colleges from operating under the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which says institutions can censor school-sponsored media that is not designated as a public forum for student expression.

Instead, student journalists would be granted the same free-speech rights afforded to other students under the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court ruling. Under that ruling, school administrators cannot punish students for speech that does not cause a substantial disruption to the operation of the school.

“It’s an issue of student journalists learning with the proper tools,” Rep. Alex Looysen, a Republican who introduced the legislation in January, said. “You wouldn’t teach them without technology, so you shouldn’t teach them without the ability to ask the tough questions and report about the tough stuff.”

On Monday, the House Education Committee chairman reviewed and conferred the Senate’s amendments, including the removal of language that would have created guidelines for the prior review of student publications at colleges. Looysen said the House unanimously passed the bill as amended.

Prior to the Senate amendments, the House approved the measure 92-0, with two members abstaining, in February.

If Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple approves the bill, North Dakota will become the eighth state — joining Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon — to pass a law protecting student journalists’ free-speech rights under the Tinker standard. Illinois has a similar law, but it only applies to college students.

As the proposal approaches law, Listopad said he would like to keep the momentum going by working on rules that would extend additional free-speech protections for students at private schools and colleges — a proposal that lawmakers nixed early in the legislative process.

Steve Andrist, the North Dakota Newspaper Association’s executive director, said the legislation is an important step forward for student journalists, adding that it was gratifying “that the student free press movement has been reinvigorated by a little thing that was able to happen in a small, obscure, rural state like North Dakota.”

In a call for lawmakers in other states to follow North Dakota’s initiative, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in a news release the legislation “will do more to improve the learning climate in North Dakota schools than any multimillion-dollar program could possibly accomplish, because it will empower young people to speak without fear about the issues of social and political concern on which they will soon be voting.”

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