Start spreadin' the news, New York's considering a student press freedom bill

Coming in mid-year, a New York legislator filed a New Voices bill Thursday that aims to protect student speech.

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, introduced A8333 just a few weeks before the scheduled end of the New York Assembly’s session. The bill is “pending consideration in the legislature” and is expected to be reviewed by the Education Committee in January.

“I’m just super, super excited,” said Mike Simons, yearbook adviser at Corning-Painted Post High School, who has been coordinating volunteer support for the New York New Voices initiative. “With Nevada being No. 12 late last week…it just feels great. And now we’re the next, too.”

Twelve states now have statutes protecting the ability of student journalists at public institutions to choose the content of student media. The campaign to enact curative legislation nationwide is known as New Voices after the John Wall New Voices Act that became law in North Dakota in 2015.

Palmesano’s bill, known as the “Student Journalist Free Speech Act” allows a student to exercise free speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the school district financially supports the media or the material is produced as part of a class. It makes the the student journalist responsible for determining the content of the media and makes clear that there shall be no prior restraint of material prepared for official school publications unless the content falls under an exemption.

Exemptions include expression that is libelous, slanderous or obscene; expression that constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; expression that violates federal or state law; or, expression that incites students to commit an unlawful act, violate the policies of the school district or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school. However, the burden of proving justification for prior review or censorship is placed on school officials, who must give these justifications before the limitation of student expression.

The bill is essentially identical to, and patterned after, a law that passed the Illinois legislature unanimously in 2016.

“We just want to be in a place where administrators can set high expectations for their journalism advisers, and then, in turn, the journalism advisers work with their staffs to develop high standards and journalist practices in their newsrooms, be it a broadcast class or newspaper or yearbook program or something else, and then just let the kids fly and try and attempt,” Simons said. “And certainly, we’ll lift them up in their successes and work with them in times of failure or in times when the journalism or their work comes up a little bit short because they’re students and it’s about that learning.”

As introduced, the bill applies only at the high-school level and does not cover colleges, but advocates are preparing an amendment so the legislature can consider extending legal protection to students at public colleges as well. 

The push for legislation started when Simons’ yearbook staff covered a local teachers’ union protest and community members became concerned about the students’ posts, despite local media covering the protests, as well. There was a question about whether the school district could compel the students to remove the post because of “the stress and frustration” it was causing the administration. However, the school district’s attorney made clear that the school lacked legal grounds to remove the post.

“That led to the kids being interested in saying, ‘Well, how can we make sure that everybody is on the same page so that we understand that this won’t happen again?’” Simons said. “And I said, ‘Well, there’s this little thing called New Voices that’s been going on.’”

Simons reached out to Palmesano in January and the assemblyman visited Simons’ students in April.

“It was a really nice exchange of ideas and a neat time for him to see students,” Simons said. “He visited right in our lab, so he got to see the room where it happens, so to speak, it was just awesome and he was enthusiastic with his support right from the outset.”

As summer kicks off, Simons plans to work on building a coalition of support from students, advisers, school administrators, professional journalists, higher ed professionals, and lawmakers.

“Even though the assembly won’t be together, they’ll still be doing business, and they’re back in their home districts. So if we can get word out to local advisers or advisers where they enjoy support or maybe advisers where they’ve struggled for support, then we would be able to reach out one to the other and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you lift this up to your local assemblyperson and see if they’ll get on board with it or contact Assemblyman Palmesano and talk to him about it and lend support to him,’” Simons said.

SPLC staff writer Sophie Gordon can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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.