Rhode Island governor signs New Voices legislation into law

RHODE ISLAND—Not only was Rhode Island the 13th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and establish statehood, but it is now the 13th state to ensure the free-expression rights of student journalists.

READ THE LAW: Rhode Island New Voices Act (2017)

Gov. Gina Raimondo signed House Bill 5550 into law Tuesday, enabling Rhode Island to join 12 other states with statutes protecting the ability of student journalists to choose the content of student media. The campaign to enact such legislation nationwide is known as New Voices, after the John Wall New Voices Act, which became law in North Dakota in 2015.

Rhode Island’s law protects elementary, secondary and college students in both public and private schools. The legislation does not authorize or protect expression by a student that is “libelous or slanderous” or that “incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act” or “the violation of school district policy.” But the legislation does protect student journalists, and their advisers, from retaliation and censorship for lawful journalistic speech.

“House Bill 5550 represents a commonsense attempt to restore some reasonable boundaries to the oversight of journalism in colleges and schools,” the Rhode Island ACLU wrote in a letter to the governor co-signed by leading national journalism and education organizations. “House Bill 5550 invites the discussion of substantive public issues into the newsroom and into the school day, where students can practice the civic-engagement skills preparing them for a lifetime of participatory citizenship.”

In a state where there seemed to be little indication that either the Senate or House bills would leave committee, the past month in Rhode Island has been a whirlwind. After sitting in committee for months, S600 and H5550 were scheduled for consideration in late June. Both the House and the Senate passed their respective bills unanimously after they were amended to have identical language; however, passage in their sister chambers proved to be complicated.

S600 was placed on the House’s “consent calendar” of undisputed bills, but the legislators were abruptly dismissed over a budget stalemate that threatened to leave dozens of pending bills unaddressed. Fortunately, the Senate passed H5550 as part of its own “consent calendar” on the last night of the legislative session.

Rhode Island becomes the third state this year, joining Nevada and Vermont, to enact statutory protection for student journalism.

“There’s no doubt the educational experience is best when students have the support and protection to be in the driver’s seat as critical thinkers and communicators. House Bill 5550 empowers students to address critical issues affecting their communities while increasing civic engagement in a meaningful, relevant setting,” JEA President Sarah Nichols, MJE, said in a JEA post.

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

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