Hefner First Amendment awards recognize quarterback of North Dakota's student press rights campaign

A college journalism professor who put together the winning strategy for a student press-rights breakthrough in an unlikely state is the winner of the Hefner Foundation’s 2015 award for First Amendment leadership in education.

Steve Listopad of Valley City State University accepted the First Amendment Award at a Los Angeles ceremony Tuesday, recognizing his leading role in securing passage of the John Wall New Voices of North Dakota Act, which became law Aug. 1. 

Named in honor of a popular journalism teacher who served in the North Dakota legislature, the law limits the bases on which schools and colleges can censor student journalists and protects faculty advisers against retaliation for what their students publish. The act makes North Dakota the eighth state with enhanced statutory protection for high school media; a ninth, Illinois, protects only college-level media.

“We don’t want our new voices retreating to the dark recesses of the Internet to have important conversations,” said Listopad, whose students sketched out what became the New Voices statute as part of a class project in 2013, then convinced hometown state Rep. Alex Looysen to sponsor it.

Attorney Mike Hiestand, a 2014 award winner for his nationwide free-speech “Tinker Tour” awareness campaign, presented the award, recalling how he came to appreciate the importance of statutes protecting students against censorship during two decades of fielding legal hotline calls for the Student Press Law Center: “Where students were calling from would determine whether the news I’d give them would be good or bad.”

The North Dakota statute has ignited a nationwide movement to enact similar legislation, with New Voices organizations taking shape in MichiganMaryland, New Jersey and being discussed in half a dozen other states.

The head of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, Steve Andrist, an early supporter of the New Voices Act, told The Jamestown Sun that Listopad positioned HB 1471 to succeed by assembling a broad coalition of supporters that even included the educational institutions being regulated:

“Without the law, a principal, a superintendent, a school board or other line of authority could step in and tell students or their adviser that it did not want to deal with an issue it saw as too controversial, such as birth control or same-sex marriage.”

The Hefner First Amendment Awards are presented by former Playboy Enterprises CEO Christie Hefner and her family’s foundation each year to recognize free-speech champions in the fields of journalism, law, education and government. Other winners recognized Tuesday included New York Times investigative reporter James Risen, who defied threats of imprisonment to protect a confidential federal whistleblower, and author/journalist Victor Navasky, longtime editor and publisher of The Nation.

Listopad was joined at Tuesday’s event by a cheering section of some two dozen North Dakotans, including two New Voices co-sponsors, state Reps. Corey Mock and Jessica Haak.