Texas New Voices bill passes key house committee

Rep. Mary González talks with students journalists supporting her HB 2244 outside of the Public Education Committee room.

UPDATE: A New Voices bill in Texas just passed out of the House Public Education committee with near unanimous approval.

The bill, HB2244, passed April 9 with 12 votes and one absence. The committee heard bills all day and was working for nearly 15 hours, according to a tweet from bill sponsor Rep. Mary González, a democrat.

It now moves to a house committee that decides which bills make it to the house floor, and advocates are focusing their efforts on getting that committee to approve the bill. The deadline to get a bill to the floor for debate is May 9.

A new sponsor, Republican Rep. Scott Sanford, signed on to be a joint author of the bill. Sanford represents a district that includes Prosper High School, where New Voices advocate Neha Madhira is Editor-in-Chief of the Eagle Nation Online.

She was one of the writers on several opinion pieces that were censored by school administrators in 2018, with coverage spanning from the Student Press Law Center to The New York Times.

“This will help our campaign tremendously because not only is he also on the Public Ed. Committee, but also he will make our bill bipartisan. I am hopeful all of this support by students, advisers and now legislators from both parties will push our bill out of the House and hopefully the Senate,” Madhira said.


4/5/2019 New Voices bill gets a hearing in Texas

TEXAS — A New Voices bill got a hearing in the Texas legislature on April 4, marking the first time the proposal was presented to a statehouse committee.

About 40 high school journalists, advisers and First Amendment advocates turned out to the state capitol in Austin to support HB2244, the new voices proposal, said Leah Waters, journalism adviser at Frisco High school in Frisco, Texas and the state director for the Texas Association of Journalism Educators.

Advocates pose outside of the Texas Statehouse. A New Voices bill got a hearing in the House Committee on Public Education Thursday. Photo Courtesy of Neha Madhira.

“This bill would basically restore press rights, to students, to my kids,” Waters said.

Fourteen states already have New Voices laws on their books. These laws 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.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez, the bill’s sponsor, introduced it front of the House Public Education committee – and was immediately hit with skepticism from the Rep. Dan Huberty, who chairs the House Committee on Public Education.

“I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, but we have the First Amendment in this country. Why do you think you need to have a bill that says what we’re already allowed to do,” Huberty asked.

Gonzalez said there are questions around what students can and cannot be censored, and the bill essentially creates clarity for student journalists and their advisers about what they can and cannot publish.

Wesley Lewis, an Austin-based attorney with the Haynes Boone law firm, appeared before the committee on behalf of the Student Press Law Center.

“Unfortunately, constitutional protections that are currently afforded to students are imbalanced and inadequate to allow journalism programs to fully accomplish their goals,” Lewis said.

Steve Listopad, a journalism instructor and adviser to student media at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, traveled to the Lone Star State to testify for the bill and sought to assuage concerns about the bill. Listopad was an advisers to students who proposed the a New Voices bill in North Dakota in 2015-16, which ignited efforts in other states.

“This bill is meant to bring student press rights back to the level of the right to wear a T-Shirt. The right to have a poster in your locker. Those rights don’t exist in Texas, they only exist in the 14 states with these laws,” Listopad said.

A policy analyst for Gonzalez said Friday they plan to send committee leadership more concrete information on the bill and why it’s needed.

Neha Madhira is an editor of the Eagle Nation Online at Prosper (Texas) High School. She was one of the writers on several opinion pieces that were censored by school administrators last year, with coverage spanning from the Student Press Law Center to The New York Times.

Neha Madhira (Prosper High School) testifies in front of the Public Education Committee, Reps pictured (from left to right) – Rep. Scott Sanford, Rep. Diego Bernal, Amy Peterson (clerk), Chairman Dan Huberty, and Rep. Harold Dutton

Madhira recently wrote a CNN op-ed about censorship of student journalism and the importance of press freedom.

The bill will be voted on in about two weeks, Madhira said, and advocates are confident it will pass. An identical bill is in the state Senate — SB514 — but it hasn’t moved since being assigned to the Senate education committee.

“The House side is more promising, which is why we pursued it first,” Madhira said. Getting through the Senate during this session is a tall order, but if the bill doesn’t make it through the state’s upper chamber during this session it will keep its spot until the next time the Texas legislature meets in 2021.

A video of the hearing is available here. Testimony on HB2244 begins at about 3.5 hours into the hearing.

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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