Finding my voice

North Dakota John Wall New Voices Act (2015)

By Sue Shalicky

Students work quietly at their computers while I stare at my computer, straining to hear the discussion happening on the North Dakota Senate floor. I find myself frustrated at any disruption that causes me to turn away from the action unfolding on the screen, history in the making.

Finally, the announcement is given for the Senators to vote on House Bill 1471, The John Wall New Voices Act. The screen begins to light up like a Christmas tree, all in green. Then a red light appears, but is quickly changed to green. Only one spot remains unlit. Senator Sinner. A quiet chuckle fills the chamber as everyone waits for Sinner’s vote. I sit at the edge of my chair for what seems like hours.

And then, the final green light appears on the board. The John Wall New Voices Act, which had passed the House by a vote of 46-0, has now just passed the Senate by a vote of 92-0. Students journalists, at both public high schools and colleges in North Dakota, will now have protected free speech.

The first email came in January 2014. Steve Listopad, a journalism professor at Jamestown College at the time, asked if I would like to join him and his students in pursuing legislation that would protect student free speech in North Dakota. As the JEA state director I was in 100 percent. That is, as long as I didn’t have to speak publicly or try to convince anyone. I even made it clear to Steve that I would do whatever I could do to help the effort as long as it was solely in a support role.

Our group grew to include West Fargo High School journalism adviser Jeremy Murphy, a few students, Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte, and several representatives, both Democrat and Republican. Our bill sponsor was Republican representative Alex Looysen, one of the twelve  youngest representatives in the nation. At first we met via video calls to discuss strategy. I did what I could, but basically went about my normal routine of advising publications at two high schools. That is until the 64th Legislative Assembly convened at the Capitol in Bismarck in January 2015. We then added Mary Beth Tinker and Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey to our group as they both agreed to come to North Dakota to testify.

As our pace picked up, our workload increased greatly. Being the lead person in Bismarck, I found myself needing to contact people and organizations for endorsements. This wasn’t too bad. At first. Then Steve let me know that he would need my testimony for the House hearing in enough time to make copies before we spoke to the House Education Committee.

What?! Speak? I decided to play it cool and just go for it. Maybe in the end they wouldn’t need me to speak. Maybe they could just use my written testimony. I believed in the bill with my whole heart and I love teaching, but I am not a sales person. To me, trying to convince people to believe what I believe is equivalent to auditioning for the Voice. Not fun!

In the end, I ended up testifying to the House Education Committee, the Senate Education Committee, the BPS School Board, and even appearing on some radio show that records upstairs at Peacock Alley. All events which were out of my comfort zone. But, when that final green light appeared on the board of the Senate floor, and North Dakota became the eighth state in the country to give student journalists free speech rights, I could truly celebrate.

I was a part of history in the making. Not as a bystander. Not merely as a supporter. But as an activist. And I am proud of it.