Rhode Island joins the race with New Voices bills in House and Senate

RHODE ISLAND — Two bills introduced in both the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate look to defend student journalists’ freedom of speech in school-sponsored and independent media.

House Bill 5550 – referred to as the “Student Journalists’ Freedom of Expression Act” –shares many of the same points that were in House Bill 7760, a bill which died in committee in July 2016 after no action was taken on it before the legislative session ended.

Introduced on Feb. 16 by Reps. Jeremiah O’Grady (D-Lincoln and Pawtucket), Shelby Maldonado (D-Central Falls), Katherine Kazarian (D-East Providence), Cale Keable (D-Burrillville and Glocester) and Chris Blazejewski (D-Providence), HB 5550 gives K-12 and university student journalists autonomy over all content, including advertising, at both public and private institutions.

The House bill also guarantees protections for student media advisors, stating that they “may not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for actions taken protecting student journalists’ editorial decisions.

Introduced on March 15 by Sen. Gayle Goldin (D-Providence), Senate Bill 0600 – also referred to as “Student Journalists’ Freedom of Expression Act” – is almost identical to the House bill, except for the fact that it excludes university students from the definition of “student journalists.”

Goldin said that the Senate bill, modeled after the legislation that passed in Massachusetts, came about after a student member of the Providence Student Union approached her asking her to introduce the bill.

“A student came to me and asked me to introduce the bill because of concerns about their ability to organize and point out problems with what was going on in the school, and that that would be diminishing unless they had their freedom realized,” Goldin said.

The two bills – which Goldin said were not drafted collaboratively – are explicit in their aim to protect student media advisors from any form of punishment for assisting student journalists in their expression of free speech.

“What we have seen is the ability for students to advocate for themselves to make change,” Goldin said. “Students have been very effective in doing so but felt concerned about retaliation for themselves or people advising or helping them.”

The bills mark another step forward for the ‘New Voices’ campaign in its attempt to counter the effects of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier – a shocking Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that upheld a Missouri school’s right to censor stories written by student journalists.

The bills were referred to the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee respectively. HB 5550 had its first committee hearing on March 16 with no one testifying in opposition, but did not get a floor hearing before the session ended. No hearing is currently scheduled for the SB 0600, but Goldin expects it to be scheduled in the next three weeks.

Goldin said she feels that the bill will receive a positive response, despite the problems they faced last year.

“Sometimes we have to hear a bill more than once in order to get different input,” Goldin said. “But there’s really no resistance to this bill, so I think we can feel optimistic.”

SPLC staff writer Jessica Kelham-Hohler can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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