Q&A: Patrick File talks Nevada’s “now or never moment” with passing a New Voices law

In June, Nevada became the next state to pass “New Voices” legislation designed to give specific protections for student journalists. Where other states have struggled for years to get this type of law passed, the entire process took a matter of months in Nevada.

The law will go into effect on Oct. 1 and provides stronger First Amendment protections for students in both public high schools and universities.

Patrick File is an assistant professor of media law at University of Nevada – Reno’s journalism school. Also a former intern and longtime supporter of the SPLC, he was recruited from that connection to help lead the push for a New Voices law.

Here’s what File had to say about his experience getting this legislation proposed, sponsored and passed so quickly.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you talk about how you personally got involved in the New Voices movement?

PF: I think my involvement started the way a lot of folks have, in these kind of recent efforts, where i got a call from [former SPLC executive director] Frank LoMonte back in … I wanna say April of 2016. He said this is something that had been beginning to sweep the nation with North Dakota and then Maryland, there seems to be some momentum building behind the New Voices effort and I came to his mind as someone who’s been a supporter of the Student Press Law Center and as somebody in a state where he thought we had a pretty good chance of pursuing this legislation. So he reached out to me as well as some other people in the state that he knew through the Journalism Education Association and through the SPLC’s volunteer attorney network and we started building a bit of a coalition of folks looking into this and seeking a sponsor, and looking toward the 2017 legislative session to see if we could get a bill passed.

The bill was sponsored by a Democratic senator. Can you talk about, was there bipartisan support, did you have any kind of party influence with how this was received?

PF: We reached out to folks on both sides of the aisle. I would say overall we’ve probably contacted about six or seven legislators, both members of the assembly and then members of the senate, initially. I’m not sure how unique this is, but in Nevada legislators are limited to the number of bills they can propose before the session. So we were kind of competing with other issues and with other interested parties on other bills, so some folks had to come back to us and say “This is something that I’d vote for and something I would support, however I’ve already committed to my maximum number of bills.” So that was something that was a little bit of a struggle and forced us to get right out in front of the issue before the session started, which was probably a good thing. But we were pretty confident really early on that student free speech and student free press were issues that are bipartisan in nature and are not something that is necessarily a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, so reflecting that we reached out to people on all sides of the aisle.

Steven Bates is a professor of media law at the journalism school of UNLV and he had a few connections through some of the time he’d spent with the ACLU and with a couple of other legislative types of efforts in state government and he was able to connect us to senator [Nicole] Cannizzaro a few weeks before the session started. She was an active high school debate participant and somebody who felt like she had benefited from extracurricular activities at school that had benefitted from freedom of speech and the opportunity to address controversial issues and deal with the issues of the day and kind of provide student perspectives on those things. She was a new senator and really felt like she could really contribute to bettering our schools statewide and so she was really enthusiastic about it from the get go and we were obviously happy for that.

It sounds like you guys working on this didn’t have a ton of prep or official backing and support initially and you kind of just hit the ground running. Can you talk about what it was like to spearhead this?

PF: It basically just comes down to coalition building. We have a very short legislative session that begins in February and ends in June. So it really is just a sprint, and you’re kind of running around trying to find folks that you think would be supportive of the idea and supportive of the bill and you get them to sign on and offer their support in the form of a letter or some testimony.

Right away, probably the most crucial player in all of it was the Nevada Press Association. In many cases, the people that are working on these New Voices bills don’t have a lot of experience, and that was the case for me. I hadn’t worked on any kind of legislative effort before and so I was really leaning on Barry Smith and the Nevada Press Association for their expertise and their guidance on how to share information, who to seek out to talk to and how to build this coalition. The state Journalism Education Association provided some help in the form of email blasts and trying to get advisers on board and encourage advisers interested in getting involved, perhaps getting students involved. We had several students come down to Carson City and testify in favor of the bill.

It’s a reminder of that quote, “why a small group of dedicated individuals can make change in democracy is partly because it’s the only thing that ever has.” I remember that quote from “The West Wing” but it might actually come from somewhere else. We had a dedicated core of people like Barry Smith from the Nevada Press Association and Steve Ranson who was a triple threat for us as a newspaper editor and a Nevada Press Association president and president of the International Association of Weekly Newspaper Editors as well as a former student media adviser. He was all of that in one person to come and say “I’ve got this expertise and I’ve got this experience and I think that everybody should support this bill.” We had a handful of high school newspaper and yearbook advisers north and south that jumped on board and tried to get the word out and get their students involved. That core of people kind of connected us into a wider network of folks.

I think that we timed some of our communication about the issue pretty well. I tried to avoid bombarding people who were interested but not fully engaged with the issue with information. There’s a website where you can post comments once a bill has been proposed to the legislature and I think we got a good critical mass of people to voice their support of the bill in the right moment. I would argue that eased fears that some legislators might have had but also gave legislators who weren’t fully aware of what the bill was all about some confidence that their constituents favored it and it was something they could safely vote in favor of and safely support knowing that their constituents were on their side.

You described this as a sprint and it sounds like this was a very fast process. What was that like?

PF: Again, Barry Smith sort of laid this all out for me. I believe the session started on Feb. 2 and ran through June 2… it’s like 120 days. We had a really, really tight time frame. It was a drawback because it was like you have this amount of time to get your sponsor and to get your bill on and the legislature can only hear so many bills in so much time. But I think in some ways it was a benefit, because it’s this big expenditure of energy, this big burst all at once rather than this sort of ongoing effort trying to keep people interested, keep people engaged. So I would say it had as many positive sides as it did negative sides, the fact that we have such a quick session.

The other thing is there’s this sense of urgency around it too. Our legislature only meets every two years so if we didn’t get it done by June of 2017 we were gonna have to wait until effectively June of 2019. It was kind of a now or never moment in the broader context of the role of engaged citizenship and truthful, accurate, responsible journalism and the role of that in a democracy. That certainly helps this be kind of a front burner issue for a lot of our constituents as well as the legislators.

Going back to that idea of timing, why do you think nationally the rate of these bills coming through has increased and we’re seeing a lot more focus on this issue? What is it about this moment that’s making that happen?

PF: At the end of the day — the president’s ire for the press notwithstanding — people can appreciate the value and the need and are thinking about good, responsible journalism in a democratic society. At the same time I think folks are concerned about the issue of free speech on high school and college campuses and whether or not we’re having a full and frank exchange of a variety of views on campus. I think this is something that’s effectively bipartisan. You’re as likely to face challenges for having conservative viewpoints on your campus as you are for having liberal ones. That’s something a lot of kids are bringing home from school and students are talking about on campus so it’s making its way to the state houses that way. It’s one of the defining issues of our time is sort of this overlay of our rancorous soundbite-based politics that I don’t think anybody is all that happy with these days. One of the things we’re saying is if we need a better journalism in our democracy, we need to make sure we’re affording students the opportunity to learn about media literacy, engaged citizenship and if students don’t have robust first amendment rights they’re not going to be able to do that and our democracy ultimately suffers.

Let me take a step back and ask you more generally why do you, personally think that having these specific protections for student journalists is so important?

PF: I have a fundamental, vested interest as someone who studies the First Amendment and then somebody who works at a journalism school in the connection between freedom of speech, freedom of the press and good journalism that serves a healthy democracy. I see, on a very personal level, in my classroom, sometimes very fundamental misunderstandings of how the first amendment works and how freedom of the press works. When some students from public schools in Nevada come to my classroom and we have to do a lot of backfilling, and a lot of review, and a lot of “here’s the basics of how the first amendment works.” Ultimately, I hope I’m doing a good job of straightening students out or fill them in where they might be missing some things but I can tell you that a lot of my students are also from California, a state where they’ve had anti-Hazelwood, New Voices type of protections for decades.

My Nevada students will come into my class and talk about the ways in which they’ve been chilled or silenced or censored in the classroom and the California students are kind of baffled by that. They’ll say “what are the schools afraid of? We had a very robust student media at my school — they talk about all kinds of controversial issues and it didn’t result in fights breaking out and people going home bullied or having been exposed to ideas they shouldn’t have been exposed to and I feel like it contributed to me having a good education.” That’s something I’ve noticed in my own classroom and hopefully the New Voices law in Nevada will help correct for that. It’s not as though we’re some sort of First Amendment wasteland. If you look at the media law landscape of Nevada, I would say that the lack of the New Voices type of protection was really kind of an exception to an overall rule of a state and a political realm that really appreciates the value of free speech, the value of the First Amendment, the value of a robust and well protected press with things like a really strong shield law and generally pretty good open records laws — there’s always room for improvement there — but things like that. That’s part of why it was an easy sell here as well. Parents of students in Nevada schools can appreciate the value of and the need for a robust protection for students’ free speech rights.

What would you tell other people who are interested in passing this sort of legislation in their own states?

PF: Every state where this has happened, it has taken a relatively small core of dedicated people to get it done. At times it feels like it’s a lot of work or feels sort of frustrating. Finding not necessarily a lot of people to support you, which of course would have been great, but it was just as important to find the dedicated people who could really see the value in this and were willing to put in the time writing long emails or talking with a legislator or to go to a legislative session or hearing and testify. It took a little while for us to find those people or for those people to find us. Ultimately it wasn’t so much this critical mass of students marching shoulder into the statehouse as much as it was finding the people who saw the value in this and were willing to put their shoulder to the wheel a bit on it and help out in that capacity. When the going gets tough, keep in mind that you don’t need a huge group of people to get this done. You find your dedicated few and those are the people that can get this done.

Then I think you start to see the appreciation come out from corners you weren’t hearing from before. High school newspaper and yearbook advisers are busy people and in some cases you’re dealing with states where they’re somewhat fearful of sticking their neck out, so that’s something that’s totally understandable. That’s why people like newspaper editors and press associations can be really helpful because they’re the people who are frequently sticking their neck out on these kind of issues and at the same time can totally see the value in better protections for student journalists.

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