PODCAST: New Voices advocates talk struggles and successes

Missouri supporters Mitch Eden, Jack Rintoul, Rep. Deb Lavender, Thora Pearson and Maddie Meyers Photo by: Hannah Hall, Lavender's Chief of Staff
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Cory Dawson: Since 1988, student reporters have lived under a Supreme Court ruling that gives school administrators vast control over what goes into their school’s newspapers.

Since then, students, advocates and media advisers have worked to put press freedoms for student journalists into law by passing New Voices laws in 14 states. These laws  protect student journalists from things like censorship, prior review or retaliation against their media advisers.

Now, in 2019, lawmakers have introduced New Voices bills in 10 states — a new record by our count. And although bills in two states — Hawaii and Virginia — have already been killed, bills in Arkansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Indiana and New Jersey are moving through state legislatures, and a bill in Pennsylvania will be introduced soon.

Hi, I’m Cory Dawson, and you’re listening to the Student Press Law Center podcast. Today, we’re talking to folks who are grinding away in statehouses — lawmakers and advocates alike — to get New Voices bills passed.

Missouri’s New Voices bill recently made it out of the House, as it’s done three times in as many years. But it’s always died in the state Senate. The mood is a little lighter this year, though, after House leaders, including the House Speaker, decided to “fast-track” the bill with overwhelming support.

Craig Fishel is a freshman Republican representative in Missouri. The New Voices bill is the only piece of legislation he’s sponsoring this year.

Craig Fishel: It’s a good bill, and I’m kind of looking forward to it becoming law. How do you teach journalism, without being able to be journalists?

CD: Fishel, though he’s a contractor by trade, has personal connections to journalism through his wife, who is a former journalism teacher. He also grew up watching another Missouri native on TV.

CF:  I grew up with Walter Cronkite as our news broadcaster and when I was young, he was the number one trusted man in the United States. And for all the time that he was on the air, nobody knew whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. He reported the news, and that’s what journalism teachers are trying to teach.

CD: New Voices advocates have latched onto the fact that these bills are non-partisan. Here’s Jack Rintoul, a high school student and editor-in-chief of The Kirkwood Call in Missouri.   

JR: This isn’t a Democratic or Republican bill. It’s a free-speech issue. That’s what needs to be emphasized to the committees. Especially when fourteen other states have passed legislation.

CD: New Voices bills have been sponsoredby both Republican and Democratic state lawmakers, and supporters come from varying political backgrounds as well. The bills are squarely about First Amendment freedoms.

Rintoul said that his school’s administration understands the importance of a free press, and they are hands-off when it comes to the Kirkwood Call’s editorial process. They give Call reporters access and treat them fairly. That’s great, Rintoul said, but other kids in Missouri aren’t so lucky.

JR: If they wanted to, they could start enacting prior review. And that’s why the New Voices act is so important here in Missouri, because other schools don’t have that same opportunity that we do.

CD: Rintoul’s adviser, Mitch Eden, is also active in the Missouri effort. Eden echoed Rintoul, and said his school administrators are a good model for how school leaders should work with student journalists. But when he talks with kids around the state, the effects of censorship are clear.

Mitch Eden: What I see is a lot of kids whose schools do not support free speech and free press. And that ultimately is what happens with prior review and censorship, is kids censor themselves and they don’t even try.

CD: Missouri’s bill has already crossed over into the Senate, where it’s historically not done well. A key facet in many New Voices bills is a protection for administrators. They ensure that if a student newspaper libels someone, for example, a lawsuit can’t target the school district.

In some ways, Missouri is ground zero for the student press freedom movement. It was here where in 1988, Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, then a high school journalist in the Hazelwood school district, took her censorship case all the way to the Supreme Court — and lost.

Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey: I just try to tell whoever, whether it be a senator or representative or whoever, to share the story of what I went through as a high school student almost 35 years ago.

They want to do the right thing, they want to help. It’s just terrible that this continues to be such a struggle.

CD: Kuhlmeier Frey maintains that the Supreme Court made the wrong call in her case, and supports New Voices as a way to restore student journalists’ rights.

CKF: It took me 20 years to finally listen to it. Part of it was I didn’t know it existed, but then part of it was just, you know, how do you bring yourself to bear, confront something that has been a part of your life for so very long. You don’t want to believe what you heard.

CD: Frey has been advocating for New Voices bills for decades. She plans to come to Missouri now that the state’s bill has passed into the Senate. In February, she testified in Nebraska, where the bill sponsor also has a very strong personal connection to student press freedom.

Adam Morfeld: I started an alternative publication at my high school, I was threatened with expulsion for it.

That’s Adam Morfeld, a Nebraska State Senator who is in his second year sponsoring Nebraska’s New Voices bill. Like Fishel, Morfeld says giving students the freedom to do actual journalism is necessary to help them grow.

AM: “I think that this is a real problem … If administrators and other folks try to minimize that if we’re truly preparing our young people for being good citizens in the community, then we need to give them the skills, responsibility and sometimes consequences of exercising their First Amendment rights,”

CD: Nebraska’s bill has already passed several hurdles and is on the floor of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature. Nebraska is the only state in the country with a single legislative body in lieu of a traditional House and Senate.

Hillary DeVoss is a journalism adviser who had worked in Nebraska for years and says it’s fundamentally unfair that Nebraskan students don’t have the same press freedoms as students just across the border in Colorado, Kansas and Iowa.

Hillary DeVoss: “What makes Nebraska kids less capable of reporting the truth than the kids in the three surrounding states? It makes no sense.”

CD: Nebraska’s bill has been through the legislature three times, and failed each time. DeVoss says that it’s actually been a blessing in disguise, because the protections for student reporters have only increased. The first draft of the bill would have provided protections only for college students. The most recent version includes protections for high school and college students.

But as lawmakers deliberate, Nebraska student reporters and their advisers still work under the Hazelwood standard.

HD: There’s a lot of censorship going on in Nebraska and a lot of retaliation. And no one was really doing a whole lot about it.

CD: DeVoss says that the excitement around New Voices was sparked, in part, by an upstart victory in deep-red North Dakota four years ago. She says threats to press freedom, and the obvious need for improved media literacy are also arguments in favor of the bill.

HD: And now, people talking about fake news and having to educate students in media literacy. It’s another angle that we’ve picked up as we’ve snowballed.

CD: In larger states like Texas and New York, the effort to get New Voices bills passed has moved a bit slower.    

Texas is the only state in the union that holds a legislative session once every two years instead of every year. It’s already a challenge to get students to come every year to voice their support, moreso when the legislature only meets every two years.

But issues of student press freedom are more prominent in Texas this year, after a high-profile censorship case unfolded in a Dallas suburb. Neha Madhira, an editor of the Eagle Nation Online, at Prosper High School was one of the writers on several opinion pieces that were censored by school administrators last year.

The incident was covered extensively in Texas media and eventually led to a New York Times story. Now, Madhira and a cohort of advocates have focused on seizing this attention to push hard for a New Voices bill in the Lone Star State.

Neha Madhira: Last session we weren’t really super involved with this, but we really thought we would have better shot because you know last session, the biggest issue was that ther was just not a good support system behind the bill in Texas.

CD: It often takes a while to get these laws passed. Legislatures move slowly. Lawmakers need to get acclimated to the idea, and constituents’ support needs to be evident through the whole process.

Washington State’s New Voices bill was nicknamed the “Zombie Bill” in the legislature because it just…wouldn’t die. The first version of the bill was in front of lawmakers in 2007 and it finally passed a decade later. Brian Schraum has been there since the beginning.

Schraum, a one-time Student Press Law Center fellow who now works at Arizona State University, said that in hindsight, there’s no “just add water” formula for getting a bill passed.

Brian Schraum: What I’ve come to appreciate is that these debates are such a reflection of the politics of the day, of the place where they take place. You know I think every state is different in terms of the political context obviously what other issues they’re grappling with, what the dominant mentality is ideologically , but And almost as important is what’s going on nationally.

CD: Schraum said he’s noticed Republican lawmakers shifting away from traditional conservative arguments against New Voices bills — the argument that giving kids power to publish articles about sex and drugs will lead to a breakdown of the school atmosphere — to seeing press freedom bills as a safeguard against political correctness in schools.

What might work in one state might not work in another. In a blue state, arguments about protecting journalists from censorship, especially with near-daily attacks on the press, might be more effective. Whereas in red states, arguing the bills protect free speech might work better.

But Schraum cautioned that the fight doesn’t necessarily end when a bill is passed.

BS: These are the start of the conversation not the end of the conversation. You continue to have to educate people that the laws exist, you continue to have to fight to enforce them, and you continue to have to realize that these are statutory rights, so they can just as easily go away some day if they’re abused. That’s where I think the ethics component comes in in terms of what we’re teaching students and how they’re functioning in practice. It really makes a difference in terms of if these bills are going to withstand the test of time.

CD: Administrators in Vermont learned the hard way about the state’s New Voices law, which passed in 2017.

Months after Vermont’s law was enacted, reporters from Burlington High School’s The Register obtained documents through a public records request that revealed a Vermont Department of Education investigation into a school guidance counselor. They broke the story — but school administrators ordered the student editors to wipe the story from the newspaper’s website, despite the New Voices law prohibiting exactly that.

Quickly, local media followed The Register’s reporting, and started to aggressively cover both the guidance counselor investigation and the new angle of potentially unlawful censorship from the school administration.

Alexandre Silberman is a Sophomore at St. Thomas University in Canada, but two years ago during his senior year of high school he was editor of The Register. He was a leader for Vermont’s successful New Voices law in 2017. And from college, Silberman watched his former colleagues at The Register ultimately overcome the school districts censorship.

AS: I think that absolutely solidified the law. Given that this was the first case in Vermont where the law was applied. And the school district, I’m not sure how serious they took the legislation when it passed, but the backlash and the pressure they received after this incident of censorship, and the pressure to comply with this law just made them realize how real New Voices is and the protections it provides to The Register and student media in the district. It really made it clear the boundaries that the school district has to obey and It made them realize in the end that they did overstep their boundaries, which I don’t think they realized in the beginning.

CD: After this public backlash, school administrators finally re-wrote their policy to comply with the New Voices law.

Silberman’s advice for a successful campaign in a statehouse? Keep students in front of lawmakers.

Alexandre Silberman: “What really moved them was hearing the stories of how we were dealing with censorship and prior review and self-censorship and how that was hindering our ability to do really high-quality journalism. And also just reminding them of the work that student journalists do and how this provides a lot for the community.

CD: Thanks for listening to  the Student Press Law Center podcast, produced here in Washington D.C. The music played was called ___. You can learn more about New Voices on our website, splc.org. You can also find news stories about student press rights, advice, legal resources, and quizzes. For legal help, visit splc.org/legalhelp. Follow us on Twitter @SPLC, Instagram @studentpresslawcenter and be sure to like our Facebook page. You can follow me on Twitter @Dawson_and_Co. The music used was Plenty Step by Freedom Trail Studio and Right Place, Right Time by Silent Partner.

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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