New Jersey legislator introduces bill to grant student journalists protection from censorship

NEW JERSEY — Student journalists in the Garden State might soon have an extra level of protection from administrative censorship.

Outgoing New Jersey Assemblywoman Donna Simon introduced a “New Voices of New Jersey” bill on Monday that would require public school districts to adopt a written policy for students’ freedom of expression by the 2016-16 school year. Student journalists would be allowed to report freely without sanctions or prior restraint, and student newspaper advisers would be explicitly protected from retaliation. These protections would also extend to student journalists and advisers in public colleges in the state.

The bill will be assigned to a committee next week, said John Tagliareni, who is a former high school newspaper adviser and has helped lead the New Voices campaign in the state.

“The bill is to protect student journalists and their teachers or advisers so that they are allowed to express their First Amendment rights,” said New Voices of New Jersey co-organizer Tom McHale. “It’s basically an anti-Hazelwood law, taking things back to the Tinker standard.”

The 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier ensured that schools could censor students engaged in school-sponsored speech, including student newspapers, as long as the motivation is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” This was a setback from the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, where the Supreme Court ruled that school officials could not punish or prohibit student speech unless they can clearly demonstrate that it will result in a material and substantial disruption of school activities.

“We’ve seen too many advisers in New Jersey lose their jobs or be forced to resign their journalism teacher advising position for supporting students [who are] doing what they should be legally allowed to do,” McHale said.

For example, at Pemberton County High School in Pemberton, New Jersey, adviser Bill Gurden was removed from his position in 2014 and the principal threatened to discontinue the journalism class altogether. Gurden is now suing the school alleging a civil rights violation.

And at Northern Highlands Regional High School in 2014, the principal vetoed the publication of a news article unflattering to the school superintendent, first objecting that the article concerned sensitive personnel issues, then later asserting that the article was objectionable because it relied on confidential sources and lacked balance.

Three months after the article was censored, it was allowed to run. But the school board responded with a more rigid publications policy limiting the use of anonymous sources and students’ ability to appeal school censorship decisions. Following the ordeal, adviser John Wodnick resigned.

At the time of the Northern Highlands incident, the Star-Ledger ran an editorial calling for legislation protecting student journalists similar to California’s Journalism Teacher Protection Act.

“The Northern Highlands case should give cause for a similar firewall for New Jersey students and responsible advisers, who too often are compromised by administrative agendas,” the editorial board wrote.

The New Jersey bill’s future is uncertain as Simon lost reelection and will leave the legislature in January. Simon, a Republican, is currently the only sponsor or co-sponsor listed. She could not be reached for comment.

The bill will need to be reintroduced in the next session, which starts January 12.

Now, McHale said he is focused on finding supporters inside and out of the state legislature. He said the campaign will also reach out to media outlets that have shown support in the past, such as the Star-Ledger.

The organizers will also connect with student organizations, including the Garden State Scholastic Journalism Association Student Center. Both McHale and Tagliareni sit on the association’s board.

The current bill is part of a national effort led by the Student Press Law Center to pass state-by-state legislation protecting student journalists. There are 19 state campaigns so far, including ones in Michigan, Illinois and Missouri, home of the Hazelwood School District.

In April, North Dakota passed the John Wall New Voices Act, which ensures the free-speech rights of student journalists in public schools and colleges. That made North Dakota the eighth state to pass legislation reinforcing students’ right to free speech and sparked similar campaigns across the country.

Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner at (202) 974-6318 or by email.

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