Vermont introduces New Voices legislation, hears testimony in committee meeting

VERMONT—The introduction of Senate Bill 18 to the Vermont legislature on January 12 is only the latest attempt by Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, to codify press freedom for students in Vermont state law.

White is no stranger to introducing bills advocating for free student expression – she introduced one in 2005 and another in 2012 – this time, however, the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham and Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, respectively vice chair and chair of the Senate Committee on Education.

Vermont educator and journalist Chris Evans, the chairman of First Amendment advocacy at the College Media Association and a leading advocate for the bill, is optimistic about its future success because of the concerted support behind it.

“Previously, the same senator, Sen. Jeanette White, proposed similar legislation and I think the problem was there was not as much of an organized effort,” Evans said. “The key thing is to bring more voices into the conversation.”

These voices include student, law, education, journalism and civic advocates as well as the formal support of the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Journalism Education Association and the New England First Amendment Coalition.

The grassroots movement to legally protect students’ rights to gather and publish information regarding public concern, New Voices Vermont, is modelled after similar campaigns in other states. Accordingly, the bill resembles North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act, the first of such legislation promulgated by New Voices U.S. to pass on a state level.

Evans lauded the bill’s accessibility.

“It’s very readable. I like the language in it and I hope [the Vermont Senate] do too,” he said.

The bill aims to protect freedom of speech for students at both public and independent schools on the secondary and post-secondary levels in Vermont.

It also contains a special provision for the protection of teachers who support student expression, stating, “A student media adviser may not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for acting to protect a student journalist or refusing to infringe on student conduct protected by other portions of the bill.

Another provision absolves schools and their faculty from liability for what students publish in student media.

S. 18 went before the Senate Committee on Education January 17, and its advocates faced a number of questions from the non-sponsoring members of the six-person committee.

Jake Bucci, a student editor at Burlington High School’s The Register and a student representative to the Burlington School District School Board, spoke at the Education Committee on behalf of the bill.

“I’m just really really hoping to elevate student voices and voices that haven’t traditionally been heard,” Bucci said of his activism.

Bucci and a fellow editor from The Register, Alexandre Silberman, along with Kelsey Neubauer, student editor-in-chief of the University of Vermont’s The Vermont Cynic fielded questions from the committee as a student cohort.

“They asked a lot about where we draw the line with publishing profanities and obscenities and things of that nature,” Bucci said.

He reported that they referred to the Tinker v. Des Moines precedent of only prohibiting speech that presented a substantial disruption to educational life and suggested judging situations regarding the publication of profanity or obscenity on a case by case basis according to newsworthiness.

Evans said the committee’s concerns also surrounded issues of legal liability and bullying, but he and Bucci felt that they were generally supportive albeit apprehensive about committing to the bill.

Should the bill pass through committee and the Senate, it will still need to be approved in the House and by the combined legislature before it is presented to Republican Gov. Phil Scott. Since the Vermont General Assembly and Gov. Scott are beginning their terms, they have two years to accomplish this.

At present, advocates hope the process will be less arduous and that the law will be implemented this summer on the bill’s stated effective date, July 1.

You can find an update about the committee meetings, here.

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

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