Vermont Governor signs New Voices bill into law

VERMONT—It’s been a busy month in Vermont, where journalists have secured two First Amendment victories in a week after Gov. Phil Scott signed New Voices legislation on Thursday.

READ THE LAW: Vermont New Voices Act (2017)

The bill’s co-sponsor and Senate Education Committee chair Philip Baruth, D–Chittenden incorporated Senate Bill 18, which contained protection for student journalists, into House Bill 513 after SB 18 was temporarily halted in the House Judiciary Committee.

HB 513 is an omnibus education bill which, with the added student press amendment, assures that public school and college administrators cannot censor material produced by school-affiliated media or retaliate against the students and their instructors for exercising their First Amendment freedoms.

The New Voices legislation was introduced in January by Sen. Jeanette White, D–Windham, who also sponsored the new reporter shield law that was signed by Gov. Scott last week.

Michael Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, accompanied student journalists to the bill’s signing on Thursday.

His own investigative work for the Burlington Free Press exposed corruption in law enforcement and oversight in the criminal justice system that led to major reform.

“The student journalists provided great first-hand explanations and cases that appeared to resonate with both the senators and the representative in the House,” Donoghue said. “There were students who said they felt they were censoring themselves for fear the administration was going to censor the stories, and so when you have news stories that aren’t even written so they can be considered, that is a scary thing.”

Donoghue said that it is absurd that TV stations and local newspapers are beating students out for their own stories because administrators do not like how the school is portrayed.

“There’s an awful lot of brave advisers that will stand by their students,” Donoghue said. “They know what is right, they know what is wrong, they know what is libel, they know what is an invasion of privacy, they know what is bullying, they know what is hazing, they know what is harassment, and they are not going to let that happen. One of the points I tried to make in my testimony was it’s social media that (administrators) have got to be more concerned about.”

Student journalists from the Burlington High School student newspaper The Register testified on behalf of the bill when it was being discussed by the General Assembly.

Alexandre Silberman, a reporter for The Register, penned an opinion piece about his school’s censorship of important stories and asked that the administration change its practice of prior approval.

The piece, from February said, “the BHS administration now demands that we send them all of our content, 48 hours before publication, for their approval. Anything they don’t like they can pull. It’s all up to them.”

That kind of image-motivated censorship is exactly what the New Voices legislation will prevent, in addition to any reprisal from administration that could chill further attempts to report important stories.

Silberman wrote that out of such fear, the faculty adviser had been bringing stories to administration for review for years.

“I understand that high school students are not adults, but a level of trust and responsibility should be given to individuals who are 15 to 18 years old,” Silberman wrote. “We are supervised by two teachers, our journalism advisers, who provide advice and assistance as we produce content. We follow the standard ethics and journalistic practices that professionals do. This is not a free-for-all.”

SPLC staff writer Marjorie Kirk can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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