A record number of states have introduced New Voices bills in 2019

More bills protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists are moving through statehouses than ever before, according to a Student Press Law Center tally.

The 11 bills are part of a nationwide effort to pass “New Voices” bills in state legislatures, which effectively counteract and clarify the limits of the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision. The Hazelwood decision greatly expanded the ability of public school administrators to control the content of student media.

Fourteen states already have New Voices laws on their books. So far in 2019, bills have been introduced in 11 states, although two have already failed to pass out of the committee stages.

Grassroots nonpartisan coalitions of students and other volunteers in 2015-16 started a push for New Voices legislation, first in North Dakota and then several other states around the country. These state laws aim to protect the First Amendment press rights of student journalists at the high school and college level and prevent retaliation against their advisers and teachers..

Arkansas (HB1231), Missouri (HB743), Nebraska (LB206), New York (A03079), Texas (SB514), Indiana (HB1213) and New Jersey (A238) already have bills moving through the legislature, whereas bills in Minnesota and Pennsylvania will be introduced in the coming days and weeks. Virginia and Hawaii’s bills have already been killed.

After Virginia’s New Voices effort failed on a tie committee vote, bill sponsor Delegate Chris Hurst said supporters shouldn’t look the bill’s failure as strictly negative. It was the first time a New Voices measure was in the state legislature in Virginia.

“I wouldn’t look at what we experienced just now as a defeat, because this is the first time any legislation like this has ever been introduced in Virginia,” said Hurst (D-12th District), a former journalist.

“We’ll try again next year, I can tell you that,” he said.

Bills have been in front of lawmakers before

The proposed laws are familiar in many of the statehouses they’re passing through in 2019. Arkansas already has statewide protection for high school students, but this year’s bill will add protection for college students as well. Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Indiana, Minnesota and New Jersey have all had earlier iterations of the bill before lawmakers in previous sessions.

Hawaii and Virginia both had debuted New Voices legislation this year, and in both states the bills failed to move forward in the legislature. Pennsylvania and Arkansas already have protections for student journalists enshrined in state law, but campaigns in 2019 seek to extend those protections.

All bills are originating in lower chambers this year except for Texas, which has a bill in the Senate and lacks a House sponsor, and Nebraska, which is the only state in the country to make laws through a single legislative body in lieu of a House and Senate.

In 2018, measures were introduced in eight states; the decade-plus effort in Washington state passed and was signed into law.

Positive signs for many advocates

Advocates in several states say that their past roadblocks were key in building the experience and wherewithal to successfully lobby state lawmakers. Missouri’s New Voices legislation has died in the state Senate after passing the House three times since 2016, though advocates and lawmakers are hopeful this year will be different after lawmakers have expressed renewed support. The House approved the bill Thursday and it’s now in the Senate.

The story is similar in New York, among other states. After trying and failing to get a bill passed in previous years, New York lawmakers from both parties, in both chambers, have sponsored New Voices bills.

Mike Simons, a High School Yearbook adviser at Corning-Painted Post High School who is spearheading efforts in New York, said that advocates have a more strategic network now than in 2017 and 2018.

“We hadn’t developed a real network to advocate for it,” said Simons said. This year’s bill doesn’t include protections for college journalists after some pressure from the State University of New York system, Simons said.

In Texas, advocates found sponsors in both the House and the Senate, said Neha Madhira, a high school senior and editor of the Eagle Nation Online, at Prosper High School.

Texas Rep. Mary González, a democrat who sits on the House education committee, agreed to take up the Texas New Voices bill. Madhira said support from González is key because she is both a popular lawmaker and tends to only have a handful of bills per session.

“The sponsorships that she does have, she really focuses on,” Mahira said.

The sponsor for the counterpart legislation in Texas’ upper chamber, Sen. José Rodríguez, is sponsoring well over 100 bills this session.

Rodríguez has agreed to substitute a previous version of the legislation with stronger bill language the Student Press Law Center suggested. The new bill has greater restrictions on school administrators ability to shape coverage before publication, also known as “prior review.”

Madhira is no stranger to censorship. The Eagle Nation Online garnered widespread coverage in 2018 after Propser administrators censored editorials written by Madhira and other student journalists.

The students eventually triumphed last year. After heavy criticism and media coverage, the school principal announced students would no longer have to give him final say over what goes into the paper.  

In Arkansas, bill advocate and college lecturer/media adviser Steve Listopad said an amendment to the state’s 1995 student media protection bill will expand its New Voices protections to college students and give media advisers protection from backlash.

The measure has passed both the House and a key Senate committee. Advocates expect Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to approve it, Listopad said.

Another bill moving through Arkansas would further amend the 1995 measure to bar lawsuits targeting school officials for anything that appears in the school paper.

SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at cdawson@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.

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