North Dakota succeeds in strengthening New Voices law

NORTH DAKOTA—The John Wall New Voices Act, the North Dakota law which gave rise to the New Voices movement, has been upgraded.

READ THE LAW: North Dakota John Wall New Voices Act (2015)

The North Dakota Senate unanimously voted in favor of an amended version of the bill that adds retaliation protection for educators to the state’s existing student-press-freedom law, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed it into law Wednesday.

The bill also clarifies that neither schools and colleges nor their employees may be held legally liable for the speech of student journalists.

North Dakota now becomes the fourth state – along with California, Kansas and Maryland – to expressly protect journalism educators alongside their students. The new law states:

“A student media adviser may not be dismissed, suspended, or disciplined for acting to protect a student journalist engaged in a protected activity or for refusing to infringe on a protected activity.”

The liability protections in Senate Bill 2201 make it clear that expression made by student publishers do not reflect the views of advisers or administration, and immunizes them from legal actions resulting from a student’s expression. The liability protection even extends to students’ parents, a novel feature not found in other states’ press-freedom laws.

As a concession to school authorities, the bill was amended to add obscene speech as an unprotected category of journalistic expression.

Journalism advisers and student journalists around the state pitched in to help usher the bill through the legislature.

One aspect of the proposed amendments which didn’t survive the legislative process was the addition of student journalists at private schools.

Steve Listopad, a bill proponent and former journalism adviser at the private University of Jamestown, said that while it was unfortunate that the bill, which was partly authored by private university journalists, couldn’t extend its protections to them, it was a win for the New Voices movement in the state as a whole.

“The time for North Dakota to add private [schools] has passed … this is closing the chapter on North Dakota and moving on. Now North Dakota student journalists and media advisers and teachers just need to make sure that our school districts and our universities are following the law,” Listopad said.

Now that the North Dakota New Voices chapter is closed, Listopad anticipates opening a new one soon: South Dakota.

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

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