North Dakota’s pioneer New Voices Law looks for an upgrade

NORTH DAKOTA—North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act, the 2015 law that blazed the trail for today’s New Voices bills, is in line for an upgrade.

Currently, under the Act, student journalists in public schools and colleges throughout North Dakota have heightened press-freedom protection. However, the law doesn’t clarify schools’ liability for their student journalists’ speech nor does it express protection for faculty.

SB 2201 is a proposed amendment to the Act that would expand the law’s scope to include private institutions, as well as providing protection to school faculty and staff against retaliation from school administrators for unfavorable coverage, and protecting schools and faculty from liability for what student journalists publish.

A Senate committee unanimously passed the bill on to the full Senate after an amendment adding protections for private schools was nixed. Republican Senator David Rust, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he thinks the amendments passed are common sense, and that he’s confident the bill will make it through the Senate without any major hang-ups.

“I don’t see any problems with the bill in the Senate. I think everybody’s pretty much on board … I think the Senate would be okay with the fact that the advisers should not be subject to any repercussions,” Rust said.

New Voices advocate Steve Listopad says the proposed amendments were originally part of the 2015 bill, but were sacrificed in order to build a foundation for student press rights in the Peace Garden State. Listopad’s students at the private University of Jamestown helped draft the legislation as part of a class project.

The University of Mary, a private university that testified against the amendments, could not be reached for comment.

In a committee hearing Monday, Listopad said while his former students aren’t legally protected, Jamestown President Robert Badal has supported their free-press rights as journalists.

“We need journalists that are independent. We need journalists that their first loyalty is to the public. And if you’re an institution that wants to educate journalists, that claims they’re educating journalists, that claims that you have student media, then you don’t have the right to make those claims if you’re not letting those journalists operate independently,” Listopad said.

Brian Swanberg, a senior at Bismarck Legacy High School and editor in chief of Uncut magazine, testified in support of the amendments on Monday. He said the experience was nerve-wracking but that he appreciated being a part of the process.

“It was kind of cool knowing that you’re representing part of a bigger moment for what you believe is the right cause,” Swanberg said.

In his testimony, Swanberg said he had written a story about a student who had struggled with mental health issues that led to a dark path in life. He wasn’t sure if he would have been able to publish the story had the New Voices protections not been there.

The bill currently has six bipartisan sponsors in both houses, but Listopad projected a harder path through the legislature than the first time around.

“Many of the lawmakers that I’ve been in touch with know what the bill meant to the rest of the country, jumpstarting anti-Hazelwood bills across the country … I think we’ll make it out of the Senate OK, but I think probably our biggest hurdle will be making it through the House.”

The John Wall New Voices Act heralded the beginning of a new wave of anti-Hazelwood legislation not seen since the 1980’s and 90’s, shortly after Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier was decided. The landmark Supreme Court case determined that student journalists have minimal First Amendment protection when speaking in school-sponsored media.

Currently, ten states and the District of Columbia have anti-Hazelwood laws. Pennsylvania and Washington state have regulations in their education codes offering some protection for student media.

A full Senate vote on the bill isn’t currently scheduled, but Rust speculated that it could come by the end of this week.

SPLC staff writer James Hoyt can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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