Rhode Island New Voices bill dies in committee

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RHODE ISLAND — A Rhode Island bill aimed at protecting students’ right to free speech and press died in committee after no action was taken on it before the legislative session ended.

The bill, which was part of the nationwide ‘New Voices’ campaign, would also protect student media advisors from being retaliated against for content that appears in student publications.

High school student Yanine Castedo launched the New Voices of Rhode Island campaign and and was a driving force behind House Bill 7677.

The bill was drafted by Castedo with the help of her advisor, using bills passed in similar states as guides. Castudo also communicated with high school and college students in Rhode Island.

“The bill shouldn’t only be based on my voice and my opinions; everyone’s voice is important,” Castedo said.

Castedo is a rising senior at Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center and is the school’s delegate for the Providence Student Union, an organization whose mission is “building student power to ensure that young people have a fair say in improving their education,” according to their website.

Castudo gained sponsorship in the House and the bill was introduced by Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady and sponsored by four other Democratic representatives.

Nine other states have passed laws protecting student journalists’ rights, although Maryland is the only one to do so in the past year. The Rhode Island bill’s failure comes a month after a similar bill failed in Missouri, which was also part of the New Voices campaign.

A New Voices bill was passed by legislators in Illinois and will become law as long as it is not vetoed by the governor. A similar bill, also part of the campaign, was re-introduced last month in New Jersey.

Steven Brown, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island, testified in support of the bill and said he did so due to the organization’s long-standing belief in restoring the student press freedom.

“The ACLU has a long history of supporting student rights and freedom of the press and the bill is a great combination of those two things,” Brown said.

Brown said it is difficult to speculate why the bill failed, but it was likely due to most legislatures feeling that the bill did not address a pressing issue.

“The bill had great hearings and students gave fantastic testimonies, but I think there was not a sufficient follow-up,” Brown said. “I don’t think legislators thought it was a significant enough issue to warrant putting energy into it.”

Castedo said she began to have doubts the bill would pass this session when it was continuously delayed from being introduced, but she used that time to spread awareness about the bill through social media and emailing legislators.

She will have more time to devote to the bill this school year, she said, and she plans to work on getting the bill reintroduced. A coalition will be a key part of the bill’s success and she plans to contact her audience – high school and college students, journalists and teachers – to build support.

She said she understands why the bill was not passed this session, pointing to the many important bills that were the legislators’ focus, but said she will work to make the bill a priority next session. However, there was not vocal opposition to the bill.

Even though the bill does have added protections for student journalists, the bill still would not protect student expression that is libelous, slanderous, invades privacy, violates state or federal law or incites students to violate school district policies or break the law.

The sponsoring legislators were not available for comment.

This article originally appeared on www.splc.org.