American Bar Association House of Delegates unanimously passes New Voices resolution

In a major development in the movement for student press freedom, the American Bar Association has announced its support for New Voices legislation. You can read the full report here. The ABA joins organizations like the American Society of News Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists in its endorsement.

The ABA is the organization that accredits law schools in the US and sets the code of ethics for lawyers — it also has more than 400,000 members. So the unanimous decision by the ABA’s House of Delegates to approve a New Voices resolution is a significant endorsement.

“The ABA has emphasized time and again the importance of civics education in a free society,” said attorney Estelle Rogers from the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, who moved the House of Delegates to pass the resolution. “… I cannot think of any more meaningful civics education experience than participation in the journalistic process.”

Because the ABA does not make law, the passage of this resolution is essentially an encouragement to lawyers and state legislatures across the U.S. to pass New Voices protections. Many already have: 13 states currently have legislation protecting either high school, college, or all student journalists. 15 other states are in the process of trying to pass similar bills.

Why do student journalists need specific legislative protections? Back in 1988, the Supreme Court took on a case called Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and ruled that it was not a violation of the First Amendment that school principal Robert E. Reynolds cut two articles from the student newspaper because he considered them “inappropriate.” This opened the way for interpretations of the law that censor students, and specifically student journalists.

Before this, the premier decision on student free speech had been Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), where the court ruled in favor of students who wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The students, John Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt, had been sent home from school for their actions. The court’s decision made it clear that students were protected by the First Amendment even at school, which made Hazelwood’s reversal a huge blow to student free speech, and in turn to student press.

In the decades since, students have repeatedly been censored or punished, and multiple student publications have been left without funding or advisers.

Cue the current push for specific protections. This is also why the ABA resolution’s language specifically mentions the need to “rigorously protect” student journalists’ ability to “make the independent editorial judgments necessary to meaningfully cover issues of social and political importance without fear of retaliation or reprisal.”

“It’s important for state legislatures and school boards to send the message to student journalists at every level that a free press matters, that a press that does its job providing accurate information and serving as a watchdog is crucial to the functioning of our country at every level,” said American University law professor and ABA member Steve Wermiel.

Wermiel teaches First Amendment law, and also worked as a reporter for 20 years and as a student journalist in both high school and college. He went on to say the press’s watchdog role applies to “every level of our society from the school administration to the White House.”

*Correction: A previous version of this story only listed two students involved in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), we corrected it to include the third student, John Tinker.

SPLC staff writer Danielle Dieterich can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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