Tuesday came with a flurry of activity for states considering New Voices press freedom bills, including Vermont, Rhode Island and Missouri. While each bill has slightly difference features, all share the common objective of fortifying the rights of student journalists in public colleges and high schools to publish the lawful material of their choosing.
Senate Bill 18 enjoyed a mostly positive hearing in Montpelier, though representatives of state school administrators raised concerns about the omission of liability protection for teachers and school districts. Bill proponent Chris Evans, a journalism lecturer at the University of Vermont, said the bill faces several other pressures as it makes its way to the House floor.
Evans said there is a possibility the bill could be handed off to the House Judiciary Committee, slowing its progress and potentially stalling it before the end of the session in July. Another concern was one speaker’s proposal to require training for school journalism advisers, which would place an unfunded mandate on state school districts to adopt training programs and leave students in cash-poor districts with lesser legally protected press freedom.
Barring any stumbles in the committee and if amendments can be implemented smoothly, Evans said he’s confident the bill will be able to make it through to the governor’s desk.
In Providence, Rhode Island’s fledgling House Bill 5550 received a unanimous chorus of support from student journalists, representatives of the Providence Student Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Rhode Island ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown said H 5550 is still early in its lifespan, but early signs are promising.
No further actions are scheduled at this time, but New Voices advocates will have ample room to maneuver before the session ends in June.
The effort to pass the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act in Jefferson City is now a race against time. Bill proponent Bob Bergland said no one spoke in opposition to HB 441 in Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee hearing, while student journalist representatives, journalism advisers and school administration representatives lined up to speak in support of the bill.
The next step for the bill will be to push it through to a vote on the Senate floor, where last year’s bill stumbled. Advocates want to make sure HB 441 doesn’t get lost in the shuffle, as happened in 2016.
Bergland said the Missouri Association of School Administrators raised concerns about some of the technical language of the bill but stopped short of urging the bill’s defeat.
Previous amendments to the bill would have removed advertising from protection as well as giving school districts leeway to create policies that would have allowed them to circumvent the bill’s protections. But sponsors managed to shake off those adverse amendments on a voice vote Tuesday on the Senate floor.
The bill now has 13 Senate sponsors from among the chamber’s 34 members, with eight joining this week.
HB 1130 now needs only a vote of the full Senate, which could come as soon as Thursday, and then the concurrence of the House in Senate amendments to attain final passage.