Texas senator introduces New Voices legislation

TEXAS—Just under the wire for the deadline to file bills for the Texas state legislature, Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, submitted a bill that would grant free speech protection to student journalists in public schools.

Senate Bill 2225, filed March 10, has not yet been referred to a committee, but its proponents hope it will be soon so that they can begin the process of improving and clarifying its language. For example, the legislation as proposed only refers to newspapers and will likely be expanded to include yearbooks and other student media before reaching its final form.

“The bill is a work in progress,” Rodríguez said in a statement to the Student Press Law Center, “but the main theme is that student journalists must have the opportunity to learn both freedom of the press and the responsibility that comes with it.”

Advocates are expecting a long road ahead for the challenge of codifying student press freedom in one of America’s most conservative states. Regarding potential changes and opposition, Rodríguez said there are certain areas he is willing to negotiate and others where he will hold fast as they pertain to the spirit of the legislation.

“While courts have held that public school student journalists face certain restrictions, we also have the opportunity to make clear that with the supervision of an adviser they should not be censored because they are reporting something the administration objects to for reasons other than those provided by law — articles that contain obscenity, libel, or slander,” Rodríguez said. “I’m also willing to discuss other reasonable provisions, as long as the spirit of the bill is maintained.”

For student press activist Carlos Briano, this is just another landmark in his advocacy journey, which began with controversy over student reporting at El Dorado High School in 2010 while he was the journalism teacher there. The reporting in question had to do with issues Briano considered relevant to the school.

The stories included an examination of hydrocodone addiction after a coach was arrested for possession of the drug, an editorial about a student found not guilty of rape allegations being sent to an alternative school, and the breaking news of a student being taken to the emergency room after getting sick at a blood drive.

“It stirred up a lot of discussion with the school board and superintendent and his cabinet about why they were writing about these things,” Briano said. “They put a lot of pressure on me to pressure the students to retract, to apologize for their writing. I used to be a journalist before teaching. I knew if I forced the kids to do that, it wasn’t going to be journalism anymore.”

Briano’s persistence paid off and the school administration conceded that their students should maintain the operations without prior review or censorship; Briano was even named Teacher of the Year for his campus, district and region in 2013, continuing as a finalist for Texas’ statewide Teacher of the Year recognition. But this is not always the outcome at other schools in America or even Texas, which is why Briano says his passion for student speech is constantly reignited.

It was Briano who first brought the issue to Rodríguez’s attention through contacting a legislative aide, and who is still drumming up support among local politicians, journalists and educators.

One such supporter is Cindy Todd, who will begin serving as Executive Director of the Texas Association of Journalism Educators in May. Todd said she is enthused about the bill’s protection for teachers.

“As a former yearbook and newspaper advisor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of scholastic press freedom coming to Texas,” Todd said. “I was always pretty fortunate never to have any kind of administration interfering with our publications, but I know there are teachers in Texas who have to deal with it every day, including complete prior review for their publications. Clearly, I’m totally against that because if you hire a person do a job, let them do their job.”

Like similarly-modeled New Voices legislation in other states, the bill includes a retaliation clause protecting school employees who protect or refuse to infringe on free student speech from disciplinary action.

Another potential advocate may be democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who has invited Briano to speak about student press freedom issues at his town hall in El Paso this Friday. Briano said he thinks El Paso is good place to garner support as the bill is introduced to the public because of the area’s propensity for producing award-winning scholastic journalism. Texas has the largest state scholastic press association in the country.

Anyone interested can follow the Facebook page for New Voices of Texas for updates.

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

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles

Fill out my online form.