Arkansas bill adding First Amendment protections for college students signed into law

(Left to right) Bill sponsor Rep. Mark Lowery, Henderson State University student D'erra Talley, Arkansas Press Association executive director Ashley Wimberly, HSU student Sara Densmore, HSU adviser Steve Listopad and HSU student Cle'varus Oney. Credit: Aaron Sadler, Arkansas Press Association communications director.

College students in Arkansas just gained new protections against censorship and prior review, thanks to a new law expanding on long-standing student media protections in the state.

Lawmakers unanimously passed the “New Voices” bill, HB1231, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed it into law on March 8, 2019. The measure builds on the 1995 Arkansas Student Publications Act. The new law protects public college student journalists in the state from interference from their administrators, and protects their advisers from retaliation should their students publish something administrators don’t like. The new law doesn’t cover private college students.

Hutchinson, when asked for comment, said he gladly signed the bill into law.

“Freedom of the press is one of our foundational freedoms,” Hutchinson said in a statement provided by a spokesperson. “Student journalists at colleges and universities have the same right to freely gather information as any other journalist. The freedom of the press that our Constitution guarantees does not limit that freedom by age.”

More than two decades ago, Arkansas was among the first states to pass a student media protection law covering K-12 students.

These laws are now 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.

Steve Listopad, a journalism instructor and adviser to student media at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, said the original bill was passed during a time after Hazelwood when college journalists weren’t seen as needing protection.

“No one thought, in their wildest imagination, that college students — adults — would need press protections to the extent that Hazelwood provoked them for high school students,” Listopad said.

However, in the 2005 Hosty v. Carter Supreme Court case, justices applied the Hazelwood standard to public colleges, which changed the calculus, Listopad said.

Student journalists at colleges and universities have the same right to freely gather information as any other journalist. The freedom of the press that our Constitution guarantees does not limit that freedom by age.

In late 2018, an Arkansas high school newspaper was censored. But Listopad said there was no “poster child” case in that galvanized advocates and lawmakers around HB1231, which is now Act 395 in Arkansas state law.

“It was just the right thing to do. The argument was we’re already doing something for high school students, and we’re not doing this for college students, and there’s a need for it,” Listopad said.

When he was a college media adviser in North Dakota, Listopad and his students wrote and advocated for the first bill to use the New Voices moniker. It passed in 2015.

Listopad’s advice to bill advocates is that it’s best to bring all the proposals as a package in order to keep the pressure on lawmakers, until the law is comprehensive.

“If you just pass a college bill, then you may let the legislators off the hook and say ‘hey, they did something nice for journalism,’ and then they won’t want to revisit K-12 later on,” he said.

Arkansas Representative Mark Lowery, a Republican, sponsored the successful Arkansas bill. He and fellow lawmakers saw the protection gap for college students in Arkansas law, he said.

Lowery is also a communications professor, has been an editor at local newspapers in Arkansas and wrote for his high school school newspaper.

“I have a great appreciation for the skill set that is developed through journalism,” Lowery said. “I think our students are better citizens if they understand the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

Lowery said he was glad to see one of his bills pass with unanimous support — he generally brings up controversial bills, he said. He said he’d like to look further at providing more protections for media advisers in K-12 schools, which the Arkansas law doesn’t address.

Lowery said this could be more of a challenge, though, because conservative lawmakers are concerned about overriding local school districts regarding the employment of student media advisers.

CORRECTION 3/15/2019: Act 395 is a new Arkansas law, not an amendment to a previous 1995 student media protection law. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the act as such.


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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