N.D. senator favors national New Voices legislation

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Journalism professionals around the country in 2015 discussed with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp how to make the John Wall New Voices Act become national legislation.

Steven Listopad, assistant professor and director of student media at Valley City State University, was a leading advocate of the NVA and brought together students and guests Tuesday to discuss a national legislative effort. Nine states have passed similar press freedom bills for high schools and colleges and many more have bills in the works, he said. Schools and legislators are replicating similar bills, he said.

“I have had calls from states that want to know what we did and they want know how we can help those states to replicate what happened here and at federal level,” Listopad said.

Listopad said he had no expectations of the meeting and said he was pleased with how the passion of the voices of media rights issues had impressed the legislators present. It is not yet clear on how a federal bill would be constructed or move forward, but this is an idea to be explored, he said.

“We still have to go state by state,” Listopad said.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she was proud of North Dakota for setting an example with the NVA. She said the unanimous bipartisan support was possible with the work of some of North Dakota’s most esteemed publishing families and organizations that convinced the legislators.

“We have to recognize the need for free speech,” she said.

On the national level, Heitkamp said that she doesn’t have a seat on a committee to an NVA-type bill, but she could seek out a senator with the cross-jurisdictional ability. She said that language to include private or religious schools in the bill would likely have strong opposition and especially as a stand-alone bill with bipartisan support.

“It takes personal courage when no one else is speaking to use that (journalistic) voice,” Heitkamp said.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, a legislative sponsor of the NVA bill, said the bill’s passing in 2015 was in large part from the legwork carried out over two years. A bill with meaning to both sides of the aisle, and not something to just thicken the North Dakota Century Code, helped to solidify bipartisan support as did connecting it with former journalism teacher and state Rep. John Wall, who passed away in 2014 but whose spouse, Margaret, supported it, he said.

“The bill that ultimately passed without a dissenting vote could not have been done without the people testifying locally and remotely,” he said. “North Dakota is now a leading example of journalistic freedom.”

Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, appeared via video conference, saying that many of the next generation journalists in school now will soon be working at the approximately 90 newspapers and broadcast media around the state.

“You can’t expect to train the next generation without giving them the tools to be journalists,” he said. “That is very simply the reason for our support.”

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said via video that student journalists are ironically at a disadvantage when compared to other disciplines. In sports, the arts, music and most any other area, students are encouraged to work as professionals and respected when they do, she said.

“In journalism, the more they behave like professionals the more trouble they get into,” she said. “It’s really not fair.”

Journalism involves not only writing and reporting skills, but critical thinking and all the elements of civics and good citizenry, she said. To discourage that as a student is unhealthy for society as a whole, she said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said via video that fewer jobs in journalism today result in a loss to dedicated coverage of specific beats. The crisis-driven news is no longer issue driven, he said, and the NVA will help to ensure students are not being conditioned to write sanitized versions of official statements and are thinking, working journalists.

“I cannot tell you how many times I get a phone call from someone that wants to know what North Dakota did (with NVA),” he said.

LoMonte said that 27 years after the 1988 Supreme Court Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which allowed administrators to censor school-sponsored student publications until nine individual states enacted protections of their own, demonstrates that progress is slow and federal-level action would help set a standard.

“I do not want to see another generation lost to a failed experiment on kids,” he said.

U.S. Department of Education policy is another avenue to explore, LaMonte said. States in accepting federal funding agree to honor certain civil rights without local option such as for prayer and use of facilities by some groups, and journalism could be included, he said.