Washington New Voices bill officially signed into law, becoming 14th state to protect rights of student journalists

WASHINGTON — A room full of student journalists and supporters — many of whom have waited more than a decade for this moment — watched on as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the state’s New Voices bill, Substitute Senate Bill 5064, into law on March 21.

Among those attending the signing ceremony was Mike Hiestand, the Student Press Law Center’s senior legal counsel. He was among those who strategized for the bill over the years.

New Voices is a student-powered movement to give student journalists protection from censorship. With Washington, New Voices legislation has now passed in 14 states.

Variations of the New Voices bill have been circulating the Washington State Legislature for about a dozen years. It was killed and resurrected so often it became known as the “Zombie Bill” to some legislators.

Prior to signing the bill, Inslee praised the students and supporters’ work in promoting the legislation.

“We think of this as a bill freeing students to criticize politicians, which is one of the most treasured rights in the state of Washington,” the governor said. 

“It’s a great day for student journalism in Washington and hopefully a lesson for the rest of the country.”

Fern Valentine, a retired journalism teacher who has been striving to pass versions of the New Voices bill since 1992, was on hand for the signing. She said this year’s version — the one signed by the governor — was the best she had seen because it clearly explained the students’ rights and the protections for schools and administrators.

“It’s just the perfect bill,” Valentine said. “It says the kids can talk about…any topic that is of interest to their audience, and they have the same ethical and legal responsibilities as The Seattle Times.”

Now that the bill has passed, the next step is educating students and administrators about the new law, said Kathy Schrier, the executive director for the Washington Journalism Education Association.

“We do have a fair number of those type of folks who are…very worried about what it really means,” Schrier said. “And we need to make sure they’re clear that…it’s okay. We’re going to try to come up with some communications that will explain it very clearly so they won’t have those fears.”

During the House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, representatives from the Association of Washington School Principals cited concerns that the bill would take authority away from administrators. 

Despite its past struggles, SSB5064 made its way through the legislature with little opposition. In January, it passed the Senate 43-5, and it passed the House 91-6 on March 2. Throughout the process, many of the longtime supporters were more optimistic than they had been in recent years.

Brian Schraum, who was heavily involved in the push to pass the bill while a college student in 2007, said “it really seems like the stars are aligning” for the bill, days before it passed through the House Judiciary Committee.

“After 10 years, I think today shows that if you stick with it, you always win this fight on substance,” Schraum said in an email. “We never had a paid lobbyist and we never gave in to scare tactics from the other side. We did it the old-fashioned way. This was a fight led by students from the beginning. Today is for them and the incredible teachers they depend on. It’s a great day for student journalism in Washington and hopefully a lesson for the rest of the country.” 

Schraum is a former Student Press Law Center publications fellow.

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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