Rhode Island House, Senate pass 'New Voices' legislation

Rhode Island is poised to become the thirteenth state to adopt a “New Voices” press-freedom law, guaranteeing student journalists and their advisers the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media. 

With the state’s legislative session melting down over a budget stalemate that threatened to leave dozens of pending bills unaddressed, the Senate passed House Bill 5550 late Friday night as part of a “consent calendar” of undisputed bills, sending the measure to Gov. Gina Raimondo. 

On Thursday, Rhode Island lawmakers unanimously passed two identical New Voices bills in both the House and the Senate. A confirmation vote was expected to be routine Friday, with the Senate and House each giving final sign-off to each other’s bills. But the House never came back into session. Speaker Nicholas Mattiello sent his members home after a blowup over a tax issue, leaving the Senate bill (S600) sitting on the calendar.

Late Friday night, however, the Senate came back into session and ratified H5550. 

“It just feels great to contribute our small part to a national movement, at a time when these protections are more necessary than ever,” said Zack Mezera, executive director of the Providence Student Union, which lobbied for passage of the measure along with the ACLU of Rhode Island. 

Twelve states currently have statutes protecting the ability of student journalists at public institutions 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. 

Both Rhode Island bills — H5550 and S600 — were introduced earlier this year, but were held in committee for further study for months. They finally were calendared for consideration Thursday with the legislative session in its final days. An amended version of H5550 unanimously passed in the House Thursday evening, and an amended version of S600 later passed the Senate, also unanimously. 

“I think students learn a great deal by being student journalists,” said Sen. Gayle Goldin, D-Providence, the lead Senate sponsor. “One of the things they can learn is the importance of investigative journalism. When they are given the freedom to really follow a story and get the details right, ask very detailed questions, then we get a better outcome. It allows them to really learn from the process, but it also helps bring the truth to light.”

A student journalist freedom of expression act was first introduced in the House on February 16. The Senate then filed its own bill a month later. Both are known as the “Student Journalist’ Freedom of Expression Act” and protect student journalists’ K-12 freedom of speech and of the press at schools “in both school-sponsored media and non-school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school.”

The only difference between the two bills is that H5550 originally extended protections to college journalists, as well. With the amendments, both bills now protect elementary, secondary and postsecondary students.

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.

This isn’t the first time Rhode Island has tried to pass New Voices legislation. In February 2016, a similar bill was introduced to the House, but it died in committee after no action was taken before the legislative session ended. Goldin said last year’s bill had support, but other factors led to its demise, such as it not being introduced in the legislature until later in the session. This year, the bill was introduced sooner and had stronger support. 

“There was stronger organizing on it this year,” Goldin said. “But from a big picture [standpoint], I think that the reason that all came together was because, given the current presidential administration’s attack on journalism, there is a lot of interest in ensuring that we are keeping a free press that is able to report the facts accurately. This is a great tool to make sure that students learn those skills and can apply those as they get older and seek careers in journalism.”

It is uncertain how long the governor has to act on H5550 because the legislature’s exact status is in flux. The House declared itself to be adjourned on Friday, but the Senate’s official status is listed as “recess,” with some holding out hope of a budget deal that might result in the session resuming. If the session is regarded as being adjourned, then the governor has 10 days to veto the bill or it becomes law automatically; if the session is regarded as still active, then the deadline is six days.

Goldin says she anticipates that the bills will become law.

“A big thank-you to the Student Press Law Center who really has been an active partner in advocating for this with the ACLU and the Providence Student Union and our press associations in Rhode Island,” Goldin said. “[They have] been a big help to get it across the finish line here.”

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.