Update: New Voices meets voices of opposition in Vermont

VERMONT—Representatives of school administrators are seeking to soften proposed legal protections for students journalists in a bill making its way through the Vermont Senate.

Advocates for principals and school boards were among those testifying this week at a series of hearings before the Senate Committee on Education on Senate Bill 18, “An act relating to freedom of expression for students.”

Along with taking testimony about proposed changes, senators considered recommended amendments to the bill prepared by James DesMarais from the state Office of Legislative Council. The changes would narrow the range of speech protected against censorship under the bill, providing additional grounds for schools to remove or revise articles.

The new wording would allow schools to censor media that “is false as to any person who is not a public figure or involved in a matter of public concern” or “may be defined as profane, harassing, threatening, or intimidating.”

An additional provision would clarify and strengthen the rights of students to publish critical or controversial articles. It states, “Content shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter, or is critical of the school or its administration.”

The committee heard testimony from education and law advocates, beginning with Ken Page, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association.

Page professed general support for the bill on behalf of the VPA, but also expressed reservations about giving K-12 students rights comparable to those of college students. He cited the environmental differences among schools with varying age and grade ranges.

“We suggest you allow individual schools to establish safeguards to account for developmental differences in the student population,” Page wrote in his pre-filed testimony.

Institutionally, Page also recommended more established precedent through written policy and standards for both the school and the student publications in question as well as designated funding for the professional training of journalism advisers.

Peter Teachout, a professor of constitutional law at Vermont Law School also testified on Tuesday.

After outlining the legal and judicial precedents of the First Amendment, other states’ New Voices legislation and Supreme Court cases Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kulmeier, Teachout made recommendations regarding the reconciliation of the language of the bill as it currently stands with its intended implications.

“While there are some drafting questions that probably need to be addressed,” Teachout wrote in his testimony, “there are no constitutional problems with S.18.”

Executive Director of the Vermont School Boards Association Nicole Mace spoke before the Education Committee on Wednesday.

Mace cited the Hazelwood decision as a standard for school-sponsored speech regulation and expressed concern for schools’ vulnerability in cases of hazing, harassment and bullying.

While these concerns are addressed by the amendments to the bill from DesMarais, Mace advocated a solution that would give school districts more interpretive and regulatory power.

“Our recommendation,” Mace wrote in her planned testimony, “would be to explicitly allow a school district to regulate content that interferes with a district’s obligation to provide safe, orderly, civil, and positive learning environments.”

As yet, the Senate Committee on Education has not scheduled a deadline for a vote on S.18.

Read our report on the bill’s filing, here.

SPLC staff writer Molly Cooke can be reached by email or (202) 785-5451

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