New Voices tallies big win in Vermont

VERMONT—After months of back-and-forth, student press protections are on their way to the governor’s desk in Vermont.

During the home stretch of the 2017 session Friday, the Vermont Senate – and then the House – passed H.513, an omnibus education bill that included language codifying protections for student journalists.

The bill now moves to Gov. Phil Scott, who is expected to sign it into law.

The measure protects students in public colleges and K-12 schools against censorship of work produced for school-affiliated student media, and also protects faculty advisers against retaliation for defending their students’ rights or refusing to engage in legally prohibited censorship.

Assuming the bill becomes law, it will be the fourth win for the nationwide “New Voices” reform campaign that began with the enactment of the New Voices of North Dakota Act in 2015.

The long, meandering road for student press rights in Vermont began with a dedicated New Voices bill – S.18. The bill was introduced Jan. 12 by Sen. Jeanette White, D–Windham, and co-sponsored by the chair and vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee.

White attempted to pass a similar bill in 2005.

The bill was championed by student journalists, journalism advisers and professionals including Chris Evans, a journalism lecturer at the University of Vermont who chairs the College Media Association’s Committee for First Amendment Advocacy.

Senate Bill 18 was bolstered by diverse and passionate testimony by these grassroots organizers before the education committee, but also faced concern from the Vermont Principal’s Association. The VPA’s director expressed hesitation over entrusting the same level of responsibility to high school students as college students.

Despite concerns, it passed the Senate unopposed in February, and upon entering the House, was assigned to the House Education Committee. That, according to Evans, is where things went sideways.

“It got sent to the House Education Committee where it sat and sat. And then we finally got a hearing,” Evans said. “We didn’t have an advocate in the room like we did in the Senate Ed Committee and the chair was concerned that there were legal issues with it. He was concerned about libel and he didn’t know enough about libel.”

As a consequence, the chair moved the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, where it stagnated. Proponents eventually prodded the committee chair to hold a hearing on April 27. Three high-school newspaper editors joined pros and teachers to testify, once more, before the committee.

It turns out, bill co-sponsor and Senate Education Committee chair Philip Baruth, D–Chittenden, had another play in mind.

“He took the entirety of our bill and inserted it into a miscellaneous education bill that had come from the house, so that’s House Bill 513,” Evans said.

Judiciary Committee members found no legal concerns present in S.18 and voted to pass it back to the House Ed Committee during the hearing. However, in light of the H.513 amendment, S.18 was left in abeyance, still technically viable but unmoved.

H.513 passed the House and moved on to the Senate where it was assigned to a conference committee to iron out the differences between the two chambers’ versions – including the New Voices language.

In a suspenseful roll-call vote, the Vermont Senate passed the bill 27-0. Then, during the closing hour of the House, state representatives approved H.513.

As passed, the bill protects journalistic speech with limited exceptions, including speech that is “obscene, gratuitously profane, threatening, or intimidating” and that “may be defined as harassment, hazing, or bullying,” as well as speech that is libelous, violates the law or presents a significant disruption to the school.

Additionally, the bill protects both students and their faculty advisers from reprisal based on their lawful speech.

Vermont joins 10 other states in enacting laws to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists. Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia provide regulations in their administrative codes to guarantee free-press rights.

It’s also the first bill in 2017 to clear the legislature after New Voices bills in Washington and Indiana failed. Bills are still active in Arizona, Nevada, Missouri, Texas and Michigan.

Meanwhile, Evans is thrilled with the victory, noting that principals across the state have clamped down on stories – important local events covered by professional media – that might be embarrassing or difficult to discuss.

“Once this bill becomes law – once the governor signs it – that won’t be possible, anymore,” Evans said. “People might try, but we’ll have the law on our side.”

SPLC Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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